Kerner fights past career-ending injury

January, 22, 2013
1/22/13
12:00
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Jordan Kerner still remembers that chilly Wednesday afternoon last month when he was asked to stop by the training room.

He passed bare trees and other students on his short walk to the Lasch Football Building, a stroll free of introspection and concern. The rising redshirt sophomore assumed he'd simply receive an update about the bulging disc in his back. Maybe his condition improved; maybe he'd be able to play soon enough. He was feeling better.

The defensive end never imagined he was minutes away from hearing those four words every athlete dreads: Your career is over.

On this early December day, he simply stepped inside the building and headed to the agreed-upon meeting place. The tan-bricked football headquarters was empty, save for a few coaches and staff, but Kerner didn't feel nervous.

Upon arriving, a staff member motioned for him to take a seat. Bill O'Brien and team doctor Wayne Sebastianelli sat aside of him. Much of the medical staff was there. Athletic trainer Tim Bream was the first to speak.

He explained, softly and slowly, that this bulging disc -- a "pop" Kerner felt while rehabbing his torn ACL last year -- was on the verge of rupturing. If he played football, anytime and anywhere, he would almost certainly be putting his future at risk. He would require surgery; future health complications would inevitably result.

"It definitely came out of the blue. To find out you're never going to be able to play again," said Kerner, pausing slightly, "It's a crazy thought."

Kerner was in shock. He came in as a high-level three-star recruit in 2011, and he thought he could have a future on the gridiron. It couldn't end now. Not like this.

The 6-foot-4, 239-pound lineman said the rest of the conversation is cloudy, simply because he remained in a state of complete surprise. O'Brien and Bream sat down with him for a second meeting, explaining his situation in more detail and answering any questions.

O'Brien reassured him he would always have his Penn State scholarship. He could transfer to another school -- maybe another team would clear him medically -- but O'Brien advised against that.

Kerner told the coach this was home. And he didn't want to go anywhere else.

"I told him I'll try to do my part and at least do what I can to earn that scholarship," Kerner said. "Coach [Larry] Johnson said I could help on the D-line as a player-coach, so that's what I'm aiming for."

Kerner kept the news from his friends and teammates for a few days -- "I was just trying to deal with it" -- before opening up. He became focused on what was next and tried his best not to look behind him.

"You have to move on," he said. "I can mope about it, you know? But I want to do what's best for me now. That's where my head needs to be."

Kerner revealed publicly last week he wouldn't be returning to the playing field. Comments on his Facebook wall flooded in, and Kerner expressed gratitude for fans and alumni helping put a smile on his face during a trying time.

The sense of shock, grief and disappointment has died down in the last month. The remnants, the "sour taste" he called it, are still there. Kerner acknowledges he hasn't fully overcome that sense of loss yet, the understanding that he'll never record a sack inside Beaver Stadium, that he'll never know what it's like make a tackle while 100,000 fans point and scream in unison.

But that doesn't mean he has to dwell in the meantime. Kerner isn't sure what that player-coach position might entail, but he looks forward to it. His friends on the team tell him they're glad he's staying involved, and Kerner hopes to shift his dream now.

Instead of playing on the gridiron himself, he wants to teach others how to play. He's hoping that shocking moment in December -- and these next few years -- can be the turning point that leads to a future in coaching. With Johnson as a mentor, Kerner said he's trying to maintain a positive outlook.

"Not playing here does have a sour taste, but I'm just glad I had the opportunity to even come here and even try to play. I'm grateful for that even," he said. "But I just want to be able to move on.

"I don't want this to be a bad part of my life. I just want it to turn into the most positive outcome here."

Josh Moyer | email

Penn State/Big Ten reporter

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