Leistikow: Real culprit in Drew Ott case? His toughness

Chad Leistikow
Iowa defensive end Drew Ott, right, learned late Tuesday that the NCAA would not grant his appeal for a fifth year of eligibility.

IOWA CITY, Ia. – There’s plenty of blame to go around regarding the NCAA’s final, final, FINAL decision to deny Drew Ott a fifth year of college football eligibility.

At the top of the list, blame Drew Ott.

Ott’s willingness to play through an elbow injury more serious than anyone seemed to initially realize ultimately cost him a shot at continuing his Iowa Hawkeyes career.

A team-first defensive lineman plays through pain. Of all the nerve.

“His mental toughness is off the charts," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Wednesday, "and quite frankly, that probably might have been his undoing."

You remember the photo, don’t you? The one where Ott’s left elbow looks like it was about to snap in half amid a first-quarter scrum at Iowa State? Sheree Ott, Drew’s mom, certainly does. Her son sent it to her. Just like he sent updates in subsequent weeks as he continued to play anyway, essentially with one good arm.

“He would send us pictures and stuff. Of course it looked terrible and bruising,” Sheree Ott said. “But he would say, ‘It’s coming along, it’s getting better.’ He just wanted to keep on going.”

Ott injured the same elbow as a sophomore in high school, in the 2009 Nebraska 8-man state championship game. He was playing for the school basketball team less than a month later. So, Ott thought he could tough it out – that the elbow would gradually get better, like it did in high school.

“I never thought about not playing. I mean, it was something I could work with,” Ott said Wednesday. “I had it dislocated before so I knew how to work my way around it. Wasn't too concerned about it.”

Ott’s coaches would ask him if he was OK. Naturally, he said yes. But he wasn’t. The doctor who would later perform Tommy John surgery on Ott’s elbow couldn’t believe after seeing the damage that he was able to keep playing.

So, this was Ott’s fault. If he had just gone to the bench for the rest of the 2015 season, the Big Ten Conference suits would’ve approved his initial medical redshirt petition, few questions asked, because he would’ve been well under the 30-percent rule. Instead, he had the audacity to play parts of three games hurt and then tore the ACL in his right knee in the fourth.

Hopefully you’ve picked up on the sarcasm by now. While we’re at it, let’s blame another former Hawkeye, Nate Meier, for forcing the fumble at Iowa State that led to Ott's elbow getting jackknifed. Or the Kinnick Stadium FieldTurf that wrenched Ott’s knee on an innocent punt rush.

Former Hawkeye Ott must wait on murky NFL draft future

In seriousness, there is some legitimate blame that should be addressed.

The Big Ten Conference didn’t get around to ruling on Ott’s case until late February. An initial yes/no should never come two months after the season, especially in the case of a legitimate NFL prospect.

Many have been quick to pounce on the NCAA for dragging its feet, but at least its pace of play – two denials in six weeks – was faster than the Big Ten’s. Still, after all that time, the NCAA showed little sympathy for an upstanding student-athlete who had a reasonable case.

Ferentz correctly said in Wednesday's opening reaction to the Ott news: “I am disappointed with the decision and also disappointed at the process.”

Could Iowa’s football medical staff have been culpable, too, in failing to diagnose Ott’s gruesome elbow injury sooner? Perhaps, but you also can’t fault a 22-year-old co-captain for trying to quietly power through the pain in his senior year.

But amid the blame game, this is the most important thing to remember: Even though this didn’t turn out how anyone associated with Iowa football wanted, Ott’s Hawkeye legacy is unchanged.

Character-wise, Ferentz compared Ott to 2014 Outland Trophy winner and No. 5 overall NFL Draft pick Brandon Scherff – somebody who could change the culture of a team. Ott did that, even while hurt, as a senior. He would bang teammates with his crutches, urging them along, all the way to the Rose Bowl.

If Ott had sat out at Wisconsin on Oct. 3, does Iowa collect its biggest tide-changing win of the season? Probably not. Ott had 2½ tackles for loss that day and forced an important fumble in a 10-6 win. Without that result, the Hawkeyes might not win the Big Ten West and go to Pasadena.

Seven days after the upset in Madison, Ott's knee buckled. Six months later, almost to the day, we learned that was the final play of his college career.

Don’t bet against his desire. And don’t get too caught up in how this ended.

“No regrets, I don’t think. He tried all he could,” Sheree Ott said. “He certainly didn’t let us down. I hope he didn’t let Hawkeye fans down.”

Not at all, Mom. Not for one second.