Leistikow: Drew Ott's football comeback hits more detours
If you see a red semi truck emblazoned with “ANF” and Tiger Hawk logos barreling down an Iowa highway, you might be riding next to a future NFL defensive lineman.
At least that’s still the football dream for Drew Ott, whose arduous road back from injuries has been marked by unplanned detours — and thousands of mile markers.
The 2015 Hawkeye football captain has continued to learn patience — not one of his strong suits. While rehabbing from his latest surgeries, Ott has been hauling seed corn. A common route is from his family’s farm in Trumbull, Neb., to Sigourney — and back.
That’s 11 hours of driving, plus stops.
“It’s a long day,” Ott quipped in a recent interview with the Des Moines Register.
Ott’s dry humor, like his fierce pass rush, was a staple during his Hawkeye football career. But he’s had to channel every positive urge he can find after having two more surgeries in December — one to repair a hernia (an old injury he thinks he suffered while going against future NFL first-rounder Brandon Scherff in the 2014 bowl prep); the other to repair a newly torn meniscus in his knee.
If you've lost count, that's five surgeries since Ott played his last down of football for the Hawkeyes.
“I’m just taking them as I go,” said Ott, who was expected to go as high as the second round in the 2016 NFL Draft before injuries struck. “I’m still pretty optimistic. Once I get healthy, I’ll be ready to roll. It’ll be a fun day when I’m healthy.”
Like the semi he’s driving across the Midwest, life keeps churning ahead.
In December, Ott proposed to former Iowa women’s basketball player Kali Peschel while on a getaway in northern Minnesota.
She said yes; they’re planning a July 8 wedding in Okoboji.
“Had to bring some happiness into it,” Ott deadpanned.
Peschel’s response to her new fiance's attempt at humor?
“If I’m the best of his December,” she said with a laugh, “he’s the best of my life.”
Though the couple is living almost 8 hours apart for now (she is working at a bank and coaching Division III basketball in St. Cloud, Minn.; he’s back home with Mom and Dad in Nebraska), Peschel has been a valuable source of support.
The tests of patience have come steadily for 17 months, since Ott tore the ACL in his right knee against Illinois on a punt rush Oct. 10, 2015.
He had knee surgery and Tommy John surgery (to repair a gruesome left-elbow injury), cutting short his season during Iowa’s historic 12-0 start in 2015.
Then came the five-month wait for a medical-hardship waiver ruling, with the NCAA ultimately denying him a fifth year of Iowa eligibility.
Then came another surgery after doctors saw his knee wasn’t healing properly — that kept him from being drafted or getting into an NFL training camp last summer.
Things seemed to be trending up this past fall, as he rehabbed again. He estimated he got to 90 percent strength before he noticed nagging knee pain (the meniscus). The abdominal hernia got to be too much, too.
Surgeries again set him back; four weeks for the hernia, six for the knee.
Peschel, who before her Hawkeye career began had to overcome a torn ACL, could relate.
“There’s nothing more that kills a rehab," she said, "like being told you’re going to have to start from ground zero again."
Now, a full NFL season had passed. And this past week, the NFL Combine took place in Indianapolis, where a new crop of up-and-coming (and healthier) players were being evaluated by scouts.
Meanwhile, Ott has to wait until he's healthy enough for them to give him a look.
It would all seem to be more than enough to wear a man down.
Yet, Ott impressively remains upbeat ... and fights forward.
“This is his dream; something he’s always wanted,” Peschel said. “This isn’t something that’s going away or going down easy.”
During Ott’s trips to Iowa, he rehabs about twice a week with his Coralville-based physical therapist. His upper body is as strong as it’s ever been. He’s still eating healthy and packs 275 to 280 pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame.
“I’ve been lifting upper body for, like, eight months straight,” Ott said. "I’m probably way stronger than I used to be, so that’s kind of cool."
He recently resumed light running on the re-repaired knee.
“I’m going really slow,” Ott said. “Trying not to mess anything else up again.”
He won’t be ready to participate in Iowa’s March 27 pro day. The hope is to pass an NFL physical by late April and get invited to tryouts — then maybe a training camp. Then? Who knows?
It may not have been the journey he would’ve chosen, but he’s learned to embrace that it’s the one that life has chosen for him: A comeback trail paved with concrete and 35,000 pounds of seed corn trailing behind him.
"He’s just so motivated to get healthy and show people what he’s got,” Peschel said. “His biggest thing he just says over is, ‘I’m not done. I haven’t shown people what I can do yet.'"
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.