Northwestern running back Mike Trumpy tuned into Game 1 of the NBA Playoffs like any other Bulls fan expecting a deep playoff run.
But when Derrick Rose, Trumpy’s favorite athlete to watch, collapsed to the floor in the fourth quarter, it brought back particularly difficult memories for the Wheaton native — and his family.
“My mom told me that she immediately started crying when she found out,” Trumpy said. “She felt the connection because the two of us (Trumpy and Rose) tore our ACLs.”
Although his injury had occurred seven months earlier, the agonizing memories of the day were, and still are, fresh in Trumpy's mind.
It came during Northwestern’s Big Ten opener at Illinois on Oct. 1 when he was the team’s starting running back. In the second quarter, he tore the lateral meniscus in his right knee but returned when it was clear that no damage was done to any major ligaments.
But on the team’s first opening drive of the third quarter, Trumpy went down again and knew it was something more serious.
“On the play, I got tackled and then came up in an excruciating amount of pain,” he said. “I was like, this can’t be my meniscus acting up because that’s just not how it works. I kind of hobbled off to the sideline and I just collapsed because I was in so much pain.”
After an examination on the sideline, he was informed it might be an ACL injury and he started to break down. He knew a torn ACL would have an especially cruel sense of irony.
“I’ve had a lot of injuries since being (at Northwestern),” he said. “All the times I got injured or missed practice, I would always say, ‘At least I didn’t tear my ACL.’ And when that happened, I was like, 'what do I do now?' It’s one of those major injuries in the sport and it’s never good to hear about. I was pretty devastated when it happened.”
Trumpy’s season was over. He got surgery on his knee less than two weeks later, which put him at a new low. Each day was more agonizing than the moment of the actual injury, which he said was the most painful of his career.
“The whole offseason working back - building confidence along the way and being patient throughout the whole process — was difficult,” he said.
The timing for Trumpy’s ACL tear was terrible considering his new role in the offense. He worked his way up to starter by the end of his redshirt freshman year in 2010 and became the team’s leading rusher with 530 yards and almost 4.6 yards per carry. Before his injury as a sophomore, he was leading all Northwestern running backs with 5.2 yards per carry.
Trumpy would seem like a natural to return to the starting lineup as a junior but the seriousness of the injury led to the coaching staff moving junior Venric Mark, a dynamic kick returner and former wide receiver, to running back.
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald named Mark the starter when the depth chart was released Monday. Trumpy will be his backup when the team kicks off the season at Syracuse Saturday. But that does not mean Trumpy won't see the field. Fitzgerald has discussed playing a rotation of running backs and riding whichever one has the “hot hand.”
In addition to Mark and Trumpy, the Wildcats also have capable backups in sophomore Treyvon Green and senior Tyris Jones, each of whom saw action last season.
Knowing the top guy could be yanked at any time, Fitzgerald’s rotation strategy has maintained a competitive atmosphere in the backfield.
“No one’s complacent,” Trumpy said. “My redshirt freshman year — when I first started playing — I entered camp as fifth- or sixth-string, and I wasn’t satisfied. I just kept trying to work and work and work and try to earn a role. Eventually I started playing.”
While Mark, who played running back during high school in suburban Houston, knows that his job as the team’s No. 1 back is far from secure, he too has embraced the approach of running back by committee.
“If Coach Fitz says whoever’s hot, (it’s) whoever’s hot. I agree with him,” he said. “If I’m in the game and I’m not doing very well, then of course, take (me) out.”
The sign that Fitzgerald’s plan may be the right one for the Wildcats is that despite the highly competitive environment it has created, there is still unity among Trumpy and his backfield mates. It is clear within the relationship between Mark and Trumpy, who are both striving for the same thing.
“We always talk. We always try to help each other out.” Mark said about Trumpy. “Just basically technique, stuff like that. Which hole, A or B. What would be easier so you don’t have to do so much work. Blocking technique and different stuff like that.
“Trumpy’s a great guy. He’s funny; he’s real goofy,” he added. “He’s looked upon as one of the leaders in the running back room. He’s proven himself year after year.”
At this point, Trumpy will have to prove himself once again. His injury has at least temporarily cost him his job as Northwestern’s primary runner. But despite the occasional lingering effects from the most painful moment of his career, he has somehow put a positive spin on it and come a long way from the day he was in tears on the Memorial Stadium sidelines.
“It’s not something that’s fun to go through at all,” he said. “But I’ve grown from it. I’m happy it happened because I have a different perspective on football and life. I’m stronger mentally and physically from it.”