The long road back

Oklahoma offensive lineman Ben Habern has come to the end of his recovery from an arm injury, but it was a long, painful process.
by Jenni Carlson Modified: November 7, 2011 at 9:33 pm •  Published: November 7, 2011
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NORMAN — Ben Habern strode to the middle of the Owen Field turf, hand-in-hand with the other Oklahoma captains just like he has every Saturday this football season.

Except for one thing.

He was back in uniform.

Back from injury, too.

Six weeks after a freak play busted the radius in Habern's right forearm, he returned to the Sooner lineup. Not as a starter. Not as the every-down center. Not where he was before. But close.

Much closer than he was this past month.

“It was good,” he said after the Texas A&M game, “to get back in the flow of things.”

Because try as he might, it was nearly impossible to get in the flow of anything when he was injured. In an instant, Habern went from being at the center of it all to feeling like an outsider on his own team.

How do you continue to lead when you can't play? How do you handle the loss of so many games for which you prepare so long? How do you travel the road back from injury?

“He goes from touching the ball on every play ... to standing on the sideline in a sling,” team chaplain Kent Bowles said. “That's tough.”

At a time when fellow captain Ryan Broyles is just beginning a trip down recovery road, Habern has come to the end of it. Even though team rules normally prohibit injured players from talking to the media, The Oklahoman was granted special access to chronicle Habern's journey.

It was not an easy road.

Tues., Oct. 4: 10 days after the injury

Ben Habern opens one of the frosted-glass double doors and steps into the Sooners' massive training room. Except for a couple of teammates getting morning treatment, most of the crimson-padded tables and the high-tech machines are empty.

So is the exam room where Habern first came after his injury.

He sits on the corner of the oversized exam table, his tree-trunk-like frame making it obvious why the table is bigger than most. With his arm casted from elbow to knuckles, he starts to rewind the play against Missouri that put him here.

It was third down early in the third quarter. Habern snapped the ball to Landry Jones, then raised his arms to block like he's done so many times. But as Habern snapped his arms up, the nose guard chopped at his arm.

When the two connected, Habern's right arm went numb.

“Things go numb a lot during football,” he says, “and they come back.”

But the feeling didn't come back.

Team doctor Brock Schnebel twisted Habern's arm, felt a popping and took him to the team's X-ray room. Still in uniform, Habern knelt at the end of a table, his right arm propped on it as the X-ray machine snapped pictures.

On the way out of the X-ray room, Habern noticed one of the wall-mounted TVs tuned to the game.

His offense was playing without him.

Habern showered, changed into an OU football T-shirt and shorts and returned to the sideline. Some teammates saw the splint on his arm and looked away.

Injuries are kryptonite to athletes.

Less than 12 hours later, Schnebel and team surgeon Don McGinnis cut open Habern's arm, screwed an eight-inch metal plate onto his busted bone and used 20 staples to close the sliced skin.

Habern's parents, Richard and Debi, were in Norman for the game. They stayed for the surgery, took Ben back to his rental house Monday, then drove back to their home in suburban Fort Worth.

“I cried all the way,” Debi Habern said.

She saw the frustration in her youngest child. He'd been through injury before — busted ankles ended his first and second seasons in Norman — but nothing steels you for being sidelined six to eight weeks.

Ben was grouchy, frustrated and not in a very happy place. He had to stay at his rental house all week.

No class. No meetings. No practice.

Normally, every minute of his life is scheduled.

“Then, all of a sudden it turns to lying in a bed ... watching movies and sleeping and hurting,” he says. “It's weird.”

The weirdest — and hardest — times were in the afternoons when Habern knew the rest of the guys were gathering in the locker room, getting ready for meetings and dressed for practice.

“I need to be out there,” Habern would think. “I want to be practicing. I want to be with my team.”

He couldn't be.

That hurt worse than his arm.

Thurs., Oct. 13: 19 days after injury

The top of a scar pokes above the cast on Ben Habern's arm. The plaster is shorter now, and the staples that were once in his arm are gone.

The scar, though, runs the length of his forearm.

“It's like from a horror film or something,” he says.

He laughs.

He does that more now than the week before. That's because he's running again, something he couldn't do right after the surgery because each step jarred his arm. He's going to meetings, telling Ikard, his replacement at center, to watch for the linebacker on the blitz or look for the nose guard's up-and-under move. He's texting teammates and offering words of encouragement.

“The attitude and the mindset start changing a little bit because it's like, ‘This is my third week, and I'm starting to improve,'” Habern says.

Continue reading this story on the...

by Jenni Carlson
Columnist
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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