- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Figuratively, the weight was off the shoulders of Jon Christenson. Literally, it had been removed from his leg.
For a brief moment, the Minnesota offensive lineman could look at it either way.
Smiling and relaxed as he settled into a chair in the team’s meeting room, the senior took off and unzipped his backpack, pulling out a gold, one-pound steel rod that for 15 months helped keep him upright after a devastating injury that had once left his ankle hanging limply from his body.
“Don’t worry, it’s been sterilized,” Christenson said. “It is weird holding it, especially right after the surgery. I was like, this was holding me up just a few days ago.
“It’s kind of amazing how much lighter it felt after they took it out. Just going through my running cycle, as my leg comes through I can actually feel that it’s lighter. It’s like strapping a one-pound weight to your foot, it does make a difference. It’s been really nice not to have that in there.”
Perhaps that qualifies as an understatement given the way Christenson was still beaming hours later on the practice field last month even while running sprints and fine-tuning footwork on his own, clearly enjoying the chance to work his way back to full strength after a trying season with the rod acting like an anchor on his career.
The relentlessly tough, driven interior lineman gritted his way through his junior year on the long road back from injury, one which he instantly diagnosed thanks to an anatomy class and his interest in pursuing a medical career after his playing days come to an end. But he was largely limited to a role on special teams before ultimately getting a start in a postseason loss to Missouri, the last game before the Gophers scheduled him a surgery to remove the device that had pieced him back together after breaking his tibia and fibula when a defender was driven into his left leg in 2013 against Indiana.
Confident in both his experience and knowledge of the position, Minnesota wasn’t worried about the recovery time keeping him out of spring practice, because the coaching staff was convinced he wouldn’t need the reps. The sooner he was feeling like his old self again ahead of training camp in August, the better off the Gophers would be, particularly since a healthy Christenson is capable of filling any one of three positions in the middle of the offensive line for a team with aspirations of winning the Big Ten West Division.
“Getting the rod out of his leg, you would have thought the kid got a new bike on Christmas morning,” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. “Jon is a kid, graduating early, he’s got great academic plans, he’s shooting for the stars and he’s going to get it, he’s a 4.0 student, he got married last May, but he really did struggle with the injury. You just knew he was struggling, and we were trying to find any way we could, giving him days off, just to have him around and involved. We got him in [blocking on extra points] and he was an emergency guy for us, but we knew it was tough on him.
“He’s one of the toughest SOBs I know. He played a whole season with that thing.”
That thing is out now, and Christenson obviously still has it and some screws that used to be inside him around as reminders about what it’s taken for him to get back on the field.
They’re also useful tools for a guy who might wind up in the field of sports medicine in the next few years, a sort of silver lining professionally given all the access Christenson had to doctors, trainers and physical therapists during his rehab.
He joked that he was probably an “obnoxious patient” given his inquisitive nature and the volume of questions he asked, though he anticipates the experience itself could come in useful as a way to relate to others down the road if he’s on the other side of the relationship giving treatment instead of receiving it.
But after the coaching staff had privately feared the injury might encourage Christenson to start pursuing that career a bit earlier, it’s clearly going to have to wait until the lighter, healthier lineman is done throwing blocks with two rod-free legs.
“I would never wish it upon anyone, there definitely is some good that has come out of it,” Christenson said. “Overall it was a very frustrating experience, and I think any athlete who has had a serious injury will know the struggles. There are days or times when you’re down, days when you’re up. But through it all it was definitely a growth process, and it definitely manifested out as toughness.
“It’s going to be really fun to be able to play and not have to battle myself. I can’t wait to battle the opponent instead of my leg.”
That fight isn’t completely done yet as Christenson tries to rebuild the strength back in his leg. But the heavy lifting within the leg itself is officially over.