Brad Bars' 6-foot-3, 255-pound frame collapsed on a field next to Holuba Hall during a conditioning test one July morning in 2013. He tried to pull himself up and finish the suicide drill, but he wasn't moving well.
Something was wrong with his right leg.
Questions began to fill the defensive end’s head. Who kicked me? Will I miss camp? Did I just break my ankle?
Athletic trainers grabbed his calf and squeezed it. His foot didn't move, and the doctors knew something was out of place. Bars was so worried for his future that he doesn't remember the pain. He had ruptured his Achilles — the tendon connecting the calf muscles to the heel.
He would rather have broken his ankle. It wouldn't have kept the Nashville native out as long.
"I literally got in a scooter that they gave us, drove around Nittany Apartments, so frustrated and upset," Bars said.
'On the cusp'
A redshirt freshman Brad Bars charged a wall of Illinois blockers during a fourth down punt on a cold October night in 2011.
The wall couldn’t contain Bars as he collapsed to the left side, stuck his hand in the air and blocked the ball straight up toward the sky. It was a pivotal play in the fourth quarter that led to three points for the Nittany Lions and changed the momentum in a game that would be remembered as Joe Paterno’s last as a coach.
"That was the first step to realizing, 'Hey, I could maybe do something on the field here at Beaver Stadium,' " Bars said.
He was in a good position to do something. During his redshirt freshman year, he saw action in all 12 games on special teams — a unit Bars said Paterno was "very selective" with. But even this early in his collegiate career, Bars had already become all too familiar with injury.
He came into his redshirt year with a left arm that was broken in three spots. He couldn't practice and was reduced to modified lifting. He broke his right leg before his redshirt sophomore season. That cost him two games in the 2013 campaign. A year later came the Achilles.
It was the Achilles injury that stung the most because he felt he was on the cusp of breaking out — a sentiment many held around the football program.
Safety Jesse Della Valle doesn't think Bars has had the chance to showcase what he can really do. Penn State sports psychologist Dr. Dave Yukelson said Bars was taking every opportunity presented to him. Former linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden had plans for Bars to have a breakthrough year in 2013.
"You have that feeling that you're close to success and for that to go away right away is a tough thing to deal with," Bars said.
Pumping iron and blood
Bars trailed off and looked down at the floor during an interview in the players’ lounge in the Lasch Football Building.
"You have to have faith in yourself and faith...," Bars said.
"I don't know. You just got to believe it's going to happen."
Bars admitted there were plenty of times when he could've given up along the rehab road. But he knew he had the willpower inside of him to do better, and that's what drove him.
Surgery was scheduled just three days after he initially suffered the Achilles injury in 2013. Afterward, he immediately focused on rehabbing. His motive was to receive recovery deadlines from his trainers and be ahead of them when the tests came.
He was walking after a month and running again around Christmas, five months after his injury. In the meantime, he knew he couldn't work out his lower body, so instead of wasting time while his teammates were outside practicing during the season, he was inside the weight room working on his upper body.
That didn't shock Sean Brock, the strength and conditioning coach at Montgomery Bell Academy (Tennessee) where Bars played three years under him on the varsity squad. Brock knows Bars' tenacious work ethic, and it broke his heart that Bars couldn't be on the field.
"It's all about the sweat and blood that goes into training that he puts in that makes him Brad Bars," Brock said.
Bars got through it with his trademark positivity and determination — the aspect of his recovery process that his father Joe admired the most.
"Brad's not one to feel sorry for himself," Joe said. "When someone loves to do something, it's going to help them heal that much quicker."
It didn't make recuperation easier, though. The first five weeks were brutal for Brad.
He had to rely on a motorized scooter — that he admits he drove a bit too fast — to get him from point A to point B. But even the scooter had its difficulties.
"If I hit a bump, it'd jar the Achilles because the stitching tied it all together, so the blood pumping would expand it," he said.
Brad and the scooter got off to bad start. Shortly after his surgery, he was coming back from Chipotle and the scooter died. It wouldn't have been all that bad if it weren't for his location on the Shortlidge Road hill.
He got a little help from his friends and was pushed up the steep incline. It wasn't the only time he would need support throughout the rehab process.
Brock always tells his team that injuries happen when a player lets up before the whistle. But he never had that problem with Brad because he played through the whistle.
He even had to tell him to tone it down in practice.
"That's a great thing as a coach to have to do, is to tell a kid, 'Hey, peel it back a little, these are your teammates,’' " Brock said. "He just has one speed and that’s full speed."
His father said he played with reckless abandon. Vanderlinden said it was all-out, whistle-to-whistle — something characteristic of the Bars family. But now, Brad had all this competitive energy and no football field to take it out on.
His roommates had a solution: make sure Brad stayed as competitive as possible with endless games of Halo 4 and rock-paper-scissors battles for the front seat of the car. The fieriest Halo clashes came between Brad and linebacker Mike Hull . Their playful "bad blood" helped take his mind off the injury.
But Brad had another plan. Because he was injured and a rule banned him from being a part of the team meetings during summer camp, he looked to contribute in a different way. He approached Vanderlinden and former defensive line coach Larry Johnson about breaking down tape on special teams to help provide tips to the unit.
"That was important for me, to stay involved and to stay mentally in Lasch seven days a week," Brad said.
Yukelson said the coaching staff deserves huge credit because season-ending injuries make it so easy for athletes to isolate themselves. When dealing with the days of not being physically capable of doing anything to the muscle atrophy, the social support helps with coping.
"Looking forward to the upcoming season with your buddies and now all of a sudden, 'I have to adapt,' " Yukelson said. "There's this whole ramification of psychological factors that hit you all at once"
Men's basketball player Tim Frazier said being removed from the court with his teammates was the hardest part when he suffered the same injury just eight months before Brad. He was all too familiar with Brad’s journey.
Brad said the day the injury was made public, one of the first people to give him a call was Frazier.
"He really cared about me and he really wanted to reach out and lend me advice," Brad said. "I took it to heart what he had to say."
Prayers go out to my bro @StarsBARS_31 who tore his Achilles today!!! Don't worry though he will be back stronger than ever next year!!!— Tim Frazier (@psufraz23) July 18, 2013
Brad was excited to lift at 4 p.m. on an average Wednesday morning in April. He was always excited, but that excitement was heightening nine months after his injury. He was approaching his 100-percent playing condition.
He wasn't allowed to play in the 2014 Blue-White game, and he knows he still has some rehab to do, but every day brings him closer to his long-awaited return to full-contact football.
"I get up every day and I really try to push myself, push my Achilles, push my teammates because I'm getting back into it," Brad said. "I just feel blessed to be able to get out there again."
He described his career at Penn State thus far as unique. Brad chose that word because he said he knows how much he has to offer to the team and the school, but he hasn’t been able to show that quite yet.
He believes those inside of Lasch know what he's capable of, but his mission this year is to show those outside the program who Brad Bars is — something he is confident he'll accomplish.
The possibility of a sixth year of eligibility looms for Bars, but with no definitive answer there, he is banking on the 2014 campaign. Once he graduates on May 11 from the Smeal College of Business, football will be his sole focus.
His injury has healed, so now he's back to where he started his Penn State career: fighting to prove his worth on the field.
"I'm just happy it's over," he said.
Lee Cary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (814) 865-1828. Follow him on Twitter at @leecary623.