HANOVER — When Dartmouth College football faced the University of Pennsylvania at Franklin Field in 2019, two Big Green players stepped on the field for the final time that season.
Cornerback Isaiah Johnson, who unknowingly suffered a hairline fracture during Dartmouth’s previous game against Colgate, felt his leg snap during warmups. He’d broken his fibula. During the game, running back Zack Bair tore two ligaments in his knee and suffered MCL damage as well.
When Dartmouth (2-0) takes on Penn (1-1) in Philadelphia on Friday night, the game will carry significance for both players, now seniors.
Bair, who grew up in Rumson, N.J., less than two hours from Philadelphia, is trying not to focus on it, but he knows it will be meaningful.
“I’m just trying to go into it (like) any other Ivy League game. But obviously, there is a little part of me that wants to have a really good game back at that stadium,” Bair said. “I have a lot of family coming down for the game. My family’s been so supportive, so for them all to be there to see that, (after) almost a full two-year process, it’s going to be very emotional.”
Both players left campus and went home after they confirmed the injuries. That began an arduous recovery period.
Though the injuries were different and carried different timelines — Bair’s required a more lengthy rehab — the processes were similar in some ways.
After undergoing surgeries — and for Bair, giving the MCL time to heal on its own — they donned crutches, casts and later walking boots. Johnson said he shed his boot eight weeks after his injury, but that was just the beginning.
Both players had to put in months of work just to be able to walk and run again. At first, Johnson would go through a list of exercises and stretches before and after workouts while working with trainers. He went to hyperbaric chambers and did whatever he needed to do — or went wherever he needed to go — to rebuild his strength and movement.
But the COVID-19 pandemic’s emergence changed things. Gyms and facilities closed, and Johnson lost access to a lot of things he was relying on to work his way back.
He took matters into his own hands.
“Me and my dad built a gym in my house,” Johnson said. “We bought a (weight) rack, built it by hand, built a few different other systems and things down in our basement. So I’d go down there and put in the work.”
Bair was also working with a trainer at home. While they were away from campus and the team, Dartmouth’s training staff didn’t mind them working with outside specialists as long as they were on the same page with what the athletes were doing.
Johnson and Bair both knew the importance of every day while recovering from serious injuries. Missing one day of rehab or one workout is one more day they’d have to wait to be back at full strength again.
Dartmouth director of strength and conditioning Spencer Brown knew they were both putting maximum effort into their regimens.
“For those two gentlemen, there was never a doubt that they were working, because you knew their character,” Brown said. “You knew who they were as people, that they were going to work hard and come back ready to go and prepared. They both understood what it takes to get back to where they wanted to be, and then some.”
The rehab process was trying for Bair and Johnson, both mentally and physically. Their checkpoints were similar, though they came at different times. Simply being able to walk again was significant.
For Johnson, it didn’t feel like he’d accomplished anything, but he said, in hindsight, he took those moments for granted. He didn’t recognize the progress he’d made until he was able to sprint and cut like normal — milestones for both players.
Bair, like Johnson, didn’t commemorate each step along the way. He said he started to feel good again about a year after the injury but still felt some pain while running and cutting.
He knew he was doing better once he returned to full-speed training. But there wasn’t one specific moment he realized he’d recovered.
“It was slowly testing it out, day by day,” Bair said. “(It was going an) inch further, a little bit faster, cutting a little harder every day until I felt like I was back to where I was before.”
Johnson was confident he would’ve been ready to go if Dartmouth played in 2020. Bair said it would’ve been a close call, but he would’ve been pushing it if he tried to play.
The canceled season from the COVID-19 pandemic provided both players more time to complete their recoveries and to improve beyond their pre-injury capabilities.
When they started practicing for the first time — Johnson in April for spring workouts and Bair in August for preseason — it was memorable. Johnson called it one of the happiest moments of his life. Bair felt like he had something to prove but experienced an overwhelming excitement for playing again.
Dartmouth’s opening game at Valparaiso was equally momentous.
“I couldn’t stop smiling. I felt like a kid in a candy store,” Johnson said. “I love this game, and having it taken away for two, almost three years because of the injury and COVID was really hard on me. Football has always been my sanctuary, but it really was that feeling of heaven or nirvana when I stepped on (the field).”
Both players are now starters in key areas for Dartmouth. Bair is the Big Green’s lead running back, in an offense dominated by the run game. And Johnson is a starting outside cornerback.
Head coach Buddy Teevens said both are naturally viewed as leaders now, because of their seniority and the hardships they endured. But he said they rarely, if ever, bring up the topic; their teammates just know it.
“When something bad happens, guys (are) sensitive to it and they’re aware, and they see how hard people were working to come back,” Teevens said. “They don’t have to talk much about it. It’s just demonstrated by action, and the results were as good as they’ve ever been.”
Seth Tow can be reached at [email protected]