Pointing the Finger: Cvijanovic Made Choice to Play through Injury

Brady Jones has been one of my longtime friends.

We spent all of our schooling years together, every day from milk-drinking kindergarten years until our final anxiety-filled semester at Manchester College. We were both athletes at Manchester; Brady was cracking helmets and clashing shoulder pads as a member of the football team while I was trying not to double-fault on the tennis court.

We’ve shared plenty of laughs over the years and have sat in the bar until closing time in deep discussion while enjoying a cold brew.

It’s one of those strong friendships that allow you to talk or debate about anything without being so enraged that you want to dump a glass of ice cold water over the other guy’s head.

That’s why, when former Illinois offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic took to social media, bashing Tim Beckman and the Illini coaching staff about mistreatment of players, I sent a text to my childhood friend.

Manchester is a member of the NCAA’s Division III affiliation. The talent, size and athleticism that it, or any other team in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference, receives is a far-cry from what is seen on a Big Ten Conference roster.

The workout routines, practice demands and travel schedule are vastly different. Comparing the intensity between the two divisions is like comparing oranges and clementines.

In his junior season, Brady suffered an ACL and Meniscus tear that sidelined him for the remainder of the season. After surgery and a year of rehab, the starting lineman was ready to get back on the field for his senior campaign. A few weeks into his final year, he re-tore the same ACL that ended his season in 2008.

It’s safe to say that for a football player who loved to compete, Brady had been through a personal hell.

Knowing that he had been through the aches, pains and brutal injuries that football has a tendency to throw in your direction, I wanted to talk to my friend about his injuries and get his stance on Cvijanovic’s accusations that he was forced to play through injury.

“The first tear was pretty unanimous between myself and the coaching staff to get everything fixed,” Brady said. “The second tear, when the staff and I sat down, I got a little pressure to try and play through. They thought if I had an ACL brace that I’d still be better than my replacement.”

“There was only a little pressure, though.”

Some might find this response somewhat surprising. A kid, in his early 20’s pushed to try and play through a pair of ACL tears and a torn Meniscus is irresponsible, especially for a coaching staff at a DIII program. His words rang similar to the one’s that came through Cvijanovic’s Twitter feed.

But the nudging he received from the coaching staff didn’t really bother Brady.

“You are there for a purpose,” he said. “To play a sport that you willingly agreed to play.”

Remember, this is coming from a player who sacrificed his body daily with little reward outside of the satisfaction of playing the game.

No scholarship or fancy steak dinners. No nationally televised games or media coverage. Just a bunch of guys who have agreed to compete for their school in a sport they love.

It’s because of Brady’s responses to some of these tough questions that make me realize that Cvijanovic, and other athletes like him, may need to look in the mirror before pointing the finger. Prior to ranting about a program, athletic department and coaching staff that made you feel obligated to play through a plethora of injuries, maybe he should think, “what did I try to do to solve the situation?”

Certainly, if the allegations against Beckman, the Illinois coaches and medical staff are true, it’s a disappointing look into the harsh reality of college athletics. But why didn’t Cvijanovic speak up six months after the conclusion of the season? Why didn’t he level with the staff and tell them he wasn’t going to play?

November 23, 2013: Illinois offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic (68) is injured during the football game between the Purdue Boilermakers vs Illinois Fighting Illini at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, IN.

November 23, 2013: Illinois offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic (68) is injured during the football game between the Purdue Boilermakers vs Illinois Fighting Illini at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, IN.

To an extent, Cvijanovic has to take responsibility for the consequences.

He’s the one who agreed to play college football at Illinois and knew full-well the risks of competing at a high level, much like my friend in North Manchester, Indiana when he signed on to play for the Spartans.

If Cvijanovic didn’t like the treatment he was receiving, why not transfer?

Why not give up football?

Why not attempt to get a job and work towards paying for your degree like many of us have done?

My high school math teacher always had a saying, “you don’t have the right to complain about someone or something unless you’ve attempted to do something about it.”

To me, Cvijanovic didn’t exhaust all of his options.

When I asked Brady about the situation with the former captain of the Illini football team, he provided an answer that made logical sense.

“Athletes have to be their own advocate in knowing what their limits are,” he said. “I think college players have a way out if they’re feeling the pressure from the staff.”

Again, I understand that Brady and I come from a world of Division III athletics. It’s worlds apart from the reality of major college football and other athletics. But the principles are the same. The options are available at every college in every sport.

Ultimately, the chirping from a disgruntled football player rekindles the fiery “pay for play,” debate in college sports. It’s still a topic Brady and I can’t get through without laughing due to its ridiculous nature. Cvijanovic, however, has become the latest spokesperson in what will inevitably change college athletics.

At the end of our long conversation, I asked my friend, who suffered through three major leg injuries and ungodly number of rolled ankles, bruised arms and bloodied hands and one of the toughest SOB’s I’ve ever met if he ever regrets his decision to play on Saturday afternoons.

“Man, I have run through this question about 100 times since my playing days have been over and it’s hard to answer,” he said. “When push comes to shove, I don’t regret playing. Being able to be a college athlete is a blessing.”

Even a strong push from the coaching staff didn’t force Cvijanovic to play, regardless of how much pressure he received. At the end of the day, the former offensive lineman made his own decision.

It’s too late to start pointing fingers now, regardless of how broken and bruised they may be.

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