Brohm looking forward to his next hit

Updated: August 23, 2006, 2:01 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- On the verge of his return to full-go football, Brian Brohm did something in July that he'd been putting off for nearly eight months:

He watched videotape of the worst moment of his athletic life.

Ask the Louisville quarterback why he finally watched the tape from Nov. 26, 2005, and the answer is slow in coming. He seems sincerely unaware.

Brian Brohm
Joe Robbins/US PresswireBrian Brohm threw for 19 touchdowns before suffering a knee injury in 2005.
"I don't know," Brohm said.

Subconsciously seeking catharsis, maybe. Satisfying curiosity, perhaps. Searching for closure, possibly.

Regardless of the reason, Brohm was surprised by what he saw when he slid in the tape of Louisville versus Syracuse. Or, more accurately, by what he didn't see on the play that ended his sophomore season. There was no graphic violence, no shattering collision.

"It didn't look that bad," Brohm said, then laughed. "That stuff happens."

That stuff happens daily in football, to the point that we're numbed by stories of torn anterior cruciate ligaments. It's just another blown knee -- until it happens to you.

Here's how it happened to Brian Brohm:

With a little more than five minutes left in the third quarter at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, Brohm arrived at the moment. With Louisville up 24-17 and facing a third-and-eight from its own 19, Brohm was pressured out of the right side of the pocket by an Orange rush that had been a persistent problem all night.

Brohm is a classic, pro-style pocket passer -- not a statue, but not exactly Vince Young on the scramble. But with the game's outcome very much in doubt and a wide swath of artificial turf open in front of him, he took off.

Right about the time Brohm had gained first-down yardage, not far from the Louisville sideline, Syracuse linebacker Kellen Pruitt reached out and grabbed his shoulder pads, twisting Brohm sideways just as his right foot planted in the turf.

And that was it. No pads popping, just the uncompromising physics of a 228-pound linebacker pulling one way as a 224-pound quarterback was struggling forward at a different angle. Brohm spun quickly to the ground, with no immediate indication that a disaster had occurred.

"It was one of the easiest hits he'd taken all game," said Brian's father, Oscar, who was watching from the stands.

The first clue that something was terribly wrong came to the ears, not the eyes. Watch the tape with the sound up and you can clearly hear Brian Brohm bellowing as the pain from his ripped ACL and dislocated kneecap flooded through him.

"I felt it pop," he said. "I instantly grabbed my knee, both hands. I know I was yelling, rolling around."

Under normal circumstances, Brohm is an injury stoic. The bumps and bruises of football are met by a refusal to acknowledge any pain. He'd make a lousy soccer player.

Brian Brohm
AP Photo\Garry JonesBrian Brohm's 2005 season ended with a torn ACL against Syracuse.
This was different. That became obvious right away, as he writhed on the turf.

They got him up off the turf and half carried him to the sidelines, with Brian putting no weight on his right leg. The (Louisville) Courier-Journal had a photo the next day of him looking at someone, believed to be his big brother, Jeff, the Louisville quarterbacks coach, as they came off the field. The expression on the kid's face told the story.

"Scared to death," trainer Dwayne Treolo said. "Anybody would be."

This was the first serious physical setback in the golden child's success-laden career. Adolescent quarterback prodigy, considered the nation's No. 1 prep quarterback by many in 2003, the centerpiece of a Top 25 team as a true sophomore in 2005 and judged a surefire first-round NFL draft pick at the time of his choosing … nothing much had ever gone wrong for bulletproof Brian Brohm.

Until this moment. That blindingly bright future suddenly clouded over.

"It was tough," said Jeff Brohm, whose sibling empathy collided with the necessity of going back to the headset as soon as Brian was off the field. "You watch somebody grow up with extremely high expectations around town, and now around the country, really. He's lived for so long under that bubble of having to perform, and he's never really been injured before. It's something you never wish upon anybody."

Said Brian's oldest brother, Greg, a former Cards wide receiver now the director of football operations: "You felt just terrible for him. You know how much it means to him."

Shock eventually gave way to the diagnosis in the Louisville locker room from team doctor Ray Shea that everyone knew was coming: major knee injury, probably an ACL. They would evaluate further later, but there was no room for wishful thinking.

"I knew he was in pain, but I also knew he was in mental pain," Oscar Brohm said. "It was traumatic."

But after accepting that news (and some pain medication), Brohm asked for the game to be put on TV. With no ESPNU available in the stadium, they took Brohm out of the locker room and put him on a table behind the north end zone. He was every bit as useful to the Cardinals at that point as the nearby statue of another Louisville quarterback, Johnny Unitas.

The Cards put the hammer down on Syracuse in the fourth quarter and won 41-17, improving to 8-2. But they knew their leader's season was finished, including for the team's impending bid to face Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl. That sucked the enthusiasm right out of the Louisville locker room.

"I'll feel better after that first hit. I'm positive the knee's going to hold up after those first hits. Then it's back to playing football."
Brian Brohm on returning from injury
"That was tough, seeing everyone come in feeling bad," Brohm said.

Brohm didn't know it then, but tough had just begun.

He underwent successful reconstructive surgery Dec. 6. Dr. David Caborn did the surgery, employing a new technique that basically braided in a cadaver's ligament. But a positive report on the surgery did little to improve Brohm's outlook.

"I was down, man," Brohm said. "Definitely for the first month. It wasn't fun."

While backup Hunter Cantwell was preparing to lead Louisville to a regular-season-ending victory over Connecticut, Brohm was spending tedious and painful hours just trying to flex the quadriceps in his right leg. That was bad, but missing the bowl game -- just the second January bowl in Louisville history -- was much worse.

"It was tough getting ready for the bowl," said Treolo, who worked daily with Brohm on his rehab. "You're still in a lot of pain, you're depressed, you're seeing somebody else do your job."

In Jacksonville for the Gator Bowl, Treolo didn't even attend practices. He stayed with Brohm at the team hotel and worked with him on his rehab, trying to keep him motivated.

Cantwell played valiantly in the game, hanging in despite repeatedly having his nose bloodied by Virginia Tech blitzes. But he threw three interceptions (one returned for a touchdown) and completed just 15 of 37 throws. Brohm threw only five interceptions all season and completed 69 percent of his passes on his way to being the No. 2 passer in the country. Louisville lost 35-24 but couldn't help feeling as though it would have won with Brohm healthy.

After the game, Oscar Brohm, who was a Louisville quarterback in the 1960s, told his youngest son, "I know that was hard for you. That'll be the last game you'll have to watch. Next year, you'll come back and hopefully we'll go all the way."

That's about when Brohm replaced depression with motivation and got enthusiastic about his rehab. Not that it was a whole lot of fun.

Brian Brohm
Joe Robbins/US PresswireBrian Brohm will step back on the field in the Cardinals' opener against Kentucky.
"One time, I went over there [to the football facility] and they were pushing on him, and he was biting on a towel," Oscar said. "You know those old Westerns where they put a towel in your mouth when they're going to do surgery without any anesthetic? That's what it looked like. I figured it was kind of painful."

Treolo set a "kind of ridiculous" goal of throwing the football Feb. 1. Brohm met it. He spent that month taking three-step drops and throwing to Treolo and one of his assistants, then moved on to real wide receivers running real routes.

He took his first steps running at the end of that month. By the start of spring practice in March, he was into more rigorous running.

"The first time I cut, I was definitely wondering whether it was going to be OK," Brohm said.

It was, and that success bred further diligence. Brohm stayed home during spring break to rehab. He spent most of spring drills taking drops and throwing, then sat out when the Cardinals went 11-on-11.

Summer was a gradual reimmersion in Quarterback 101: the footwork, mechanics and fundamentals of throwing in seven-on-seven drills. There were some overcompensation aches and pains in the other leg to deal with. There was conditioning to address.

But when practice opened in August, there was no doubt who Louisville's starting quarterback would be in the season opener against Kentucky on Sept. 3. Brian Brohm.

"The knee's 100 percent," Brohm has said to every fan, media member and coach who has asked -- and there have been thousands.

The comeback has been swift, but preseason practice has not been without its blemishes. Quarterbacks are off-limits for contact in preseason at Louisville, but that doesn't mean they're excused from making decisions in the pocket with a full load of mayhem surrounding them. Under those conditions on opening day of fall camp, Brohm had some uncharacteristic inaccuracy, irritating head coach Bobby Petrino and driving big brother Jeff to near distraction.

"He missed a couple throws," Petrino said. "He's probably not used to missing a couple throws. His expectations and standards are high, as are the coaches'. I got a little mad at him. … Jeff was beyond himself upset."

The important thing, Petrino said, is that Brian's eyes never strayed from downfield. He never let himself look at the rush coming at him -- an absolute must for a quarterback. He cannot lose his nerve in the pocket.

"When a quarterback looks at the rush, his career is over," former NFL QB Joe Theismann is quoted as saying in the new book, "The Blind Side."

Brian Brohm's career likely has many years yet to come. But it should be noted that brother Jeff has not fully joined the Brian-is-fine chorus that has sung in harmony all August. He sees a quarterback still lacking his full range of mobility, speed and sharpness -- and perhaps a smidgen of his gumption.

"Not 'til he sits there with live bullets and live tackling will that leave his head a little bit," Jeff Brohm said.

Nine months and one week after his last hit, Brian Brohm will take a lick Sept. 3 against the Wildcats. Quarterbacks unanimously hate being hit, but this will be one he's looking forward to.

"I'll feel better after that first hit," he said. "I'm positive the knee's going to hold up after those first hits. Then it's back to playing football."

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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