Leistikow: An Iowa football player confronts darkness, finds road to redemption

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

On Oct. 7, 2017, Brandon Snyder experienced something that was simultaneously beautiful, magical and cruel.

On that overcast Saturday afternoon in Iowa City, it was the Hawkeye football player’s 89-yard, third-quarter interception return that turned the tide in Iowa’s eventual 45-16 win against Illinois.

A moment made for the movies. Here was a former walk-on who, in his first game since ACL surgery just 5½ months earlier, scored his first career collegiate touchdown as nearly 70,000 inside Kinnick Stadium roared their approval.

Brandon Snyder, shown after the only game he played in 2017 (against Illinois), is determined to make a lasting impact as a fifth-year Hawkeye senior: “I plan to start and lead a team to the Big Ten championship."

“It was so emotional when I crossed the goal line. It was one of those things that I just wanted to take it in,” Snyder says now. “It’s one of those moments you can’t buy.”

His voice cracking with emotion, Snyder pauses.

“It was surreal,” he adds. “Highs and lows, for sure.”

Lows? Even as he completed his triumphant gallop into Kinnick's South end zone, he wondered if something was wrong with his surgically repaired left knee.

“I had a sense in the second quarter,” he says, “that something had happened.”

He had avoided trainers at halftime. Later, it was discovered Snyder had partially re-torn the same ACL. So he had arthroscopic surgery, hoping to return in a few weeks. While training the week of the Nov. 4 Ohio State game, it became a full tear.

A second ACL surgery — and a third overall on the knee — in seven months.

For somebody who craves the camaraderie and contact that playing high-level football brings, it was a sucker punch to Snyder’s soul.

Yet he wasn’t even close to reaching rock bottom.

An arrest, and a crucial phone call, put rehab into the background.

The timetable (typically seven to 12 months) and fullness of recovery from ACL surgery depends on the person. It’s a grueling process of patience, discipline and effort.

“It’s not easy once. It’s really hard twice,” Snyder says, again his voice quivering a bit — a reminder of the humanity inside a hard-hitting, physical tackler whose face during game days is caked in eye black. “Just a lot of tough days.”

The most challenging part of the recovery?

“How mundane it is. It’s every day. It doesn’t go away. It’s very repetitive,” Snyder says. “It’s extremely hard. You have to stick to the process. You can’t show up one day a week, two days a week. ... It takes seven days of commitment. Hours of commitment. It can drive you insane.”

As Brandon Snyder continued his rehab from a torn ACL, he was signing footballs at a Hawkeye youth camp in Johnston on May 5.

Every man has a breaking point.

On Dec. 10, Snyder broke. He drank too much — a big no-no for Iowa football players on multiple levels, even if you’re of age like Snyder was — and then made matters significantly worse by getting behind the wheel of a 2017 Dodge Challenger. He was arrested around 3 a.m. for DUI. His blood-alcohol level was .163, twice the legal limit for operating a vehicle in Iowa.

Legally, a serious misdemeanor. Personally, a very public and catastrophic setback.

“Obviously (it’s) something you wish you could take back,” Snyder says. “But you accept it, you learn from it, and hopefully change a lot of other people’s lives along the way."

Snyder was suspended from traveling to the Pinstripe Bowl in New York City, a significant but expected punishment. Being isolated from his teammates — especially for somebody who had worked so furiously to come back to play with them — wasn't easily processed.

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz publicly said he was “very disappointed” in Snyder. Character slip-ups are not glossed over by college football’s longest-tenured coach.

“He said, ‘You’re going to have to earn your way back.’ I knew that,” Snyder says. “And I was willing to do that.”

But things would still get more challenging.

Those closest to Snyder noticed he wasn't himself. As his ACL rehab continued into the fourth month — a lonely process, to be sure, especially as he watched teammates doing everything he wished he could do in spring practices — his emotions became a powder-keg, ready to blow.

“Same stuff, over and over,” he says. “You kind of lose sight of why you’re doing it all.”

Finally, on one Saturday night, after a dinner with an aunt and uncle in Iowa City, the emotions spilled out.

He went back to his house; straight to his room.

And, as Snyder puts it: "I just lost it.”

He called his parents, Tim and Sheri, back in the far corner of northwest Iowa.

He remembers telling them through tears: “I don’t think I can do this anymore.”

The conversation lasted more than an hour.

The message from home?

We love you. Unconditionally. No matter what.

“It’s one of those moments I think you need to have,” Snyder says. “You kind of hit rock bottom. You find a way through it.”

'Everybody's got something' they're struggling with.

Recently, Snyder has seemed more like himself to family and friends.

Yet, he says, throughout a personally difficult stretch, his identity hasn’t wavered.

“One mistake doesn’t define who I am,” Snyder says. “Which, I’m thankful for that. And that’s kind of what got me through it all.”

Snyder describes himself as a strong Christian. He knows that those who don’t fully understand what that means might see him as a hypocrite for what happened the morning of Dec. 10.

But he counters with one of the central themes of the Christian faith — that Jesus’ death and resurrection 2,000 years ago was necessary to redeem a sinful world filled with a human race incapable of perfection.

“The whole point of my faith is knowing 100 percent that I’m going to fail. Knowing 100 percent that I can’t do it on my own. Knowing that I need a savior,” Snyder says. “And that I have one is the greatest thing, and that’s how I can deal with it.”

Brandon Snyder is shown in June 2017, rehabbing the first of his two ACL tears in his left knee.

As the topic of his faith surfaces, Snyder perks up.

“I wish I had an hour or two,” he says with a grin.

He’s certainly faced medical misfortune in his life — a compartment syndrome diagnosis as a high school junior that could’ve cost him his leg; and then in college, the two ACL tears in the same calendar year.

He certainly knows he isn’t a victim, with regards to the DUI. He made a terrible choice. And he's lucky nobody got hurt.

He wants others to view his story as one that helps and inspires those going through struggles — self-inflicted or not — rather than one defined by setbacks.

"That’s my message going forward. Everybody’s got something. Whether it’s public, whether it’s private, somebody’s dealing with something,” he says. “You don’t know what it is, but this opened my eyes to so many realms of life. It’s going to make me a lot better person going forward. It’s going to make me a better leader. It’s going to make me more involved.

“I let a lot of people down. I accept that. I made a wrong decision. But that one decision doesn’t define me.”

Full speed ahead into a final year of Hawkeye football.

Snyder, who turned 23 earlier this month, remains on multiple comeback trails.

To get on the field at Iowa requires both character and talent. He knows that, despite last season being named the lone junior to the team’s 18-player leadership group, he’s got ground to make up from what happened in December.

“You’ve got to earn the respect of your teammates back and the respect of your coaches,” Snyder says. “That doesn’t happen overnight. It’s one of things, you put your head down and show you’re still working hard. And eventually, you earn that trust back again.”

Asked if Snyder has checked all the boxes to return to the field for Iowa's Sept. 1 opener vs. Northern Illinois, Ferentz responded, “He has.”

Still, it’s worth noting that a one-game suspension to cornerback Manny Rugamba for violating team rules wasn’t announced until about 10 days before the 2017 opener.

“He’s got to earn his way back in,” Ferentz says of Snyder. “But I think it’s just a matter of time. Because he’s just a really respected player and tremendous young man.”

Snyder is fully participating in Iowa’s summer conditioning program and putting up weight-room numbers that would indicate his knee is good to go.

His intention as a fifth-year senior?

Brandon Snyder celebrates an interception in the Outback Bowl following the 2016 regular season. Since, he's played in only one college game in 20 months.

“I plan to start and lead a team to the Big Ten championship,” Snyder says. “That’s the goal that’s been getting me through a lot of these hard days.

“We’ve had two seasons (both 8-5) that didn’t turn out as we wanted. So, we’re hungry right now.”

Snyder’s full return would be a rocket boost for the 2018 Hawkeyes. He was essentially the quarterback of the secondary in 2016, when he started 13 games at free safety and led the Hawkeyes in forced fumbles (three), tied for the team lead in interceptions (three) and fumble recoveries (two) and ranked second to Josey Jewell in solo tackles (53).

To crack the starting lineup, he may have to beat out one of two 2017 starters — junior Amani Hooker or senior Jake Gervase. Plus, sophomore Geno Stone is ascending. And the Class of 2018's top recruit, Dallas Craddieth of St. Louis, is a safety.

With Snyder in the fold, safeties might match tight ends as the Hawkeyes' strongest position group.

By the time the season opener hits, Snyder will have played just one college game in 20 months.

No wonder that fall camp — which begins July 30 and is annually a sweltering, competitive, relentless grind in the final build-up to the season — currently looks to Snyder like the promised land.

“I’ve never been as excited for camp as I am now,” he says, “which is kind of funny, how perspective changes.

“You just want to put the Hawkeye uniform on again, put shoulder pads and a helmet on again. And go hit somebody.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.