MINNEAPOLIS - The University of Minnesota football team was in a battle with Ohio State to open the 2021 season, and Mo Ibrahim was carving up the Buckeyes’ defense for 163 yards and two touchdowns.
Then everything changed. Trying to fight out of a tackle late in the third quarter, Ibrahim ruptured his left Achilles tendon. A season filled with hype and hope, aspirations of leading the Gophers to a Big Ten West title, was over after three quarters.
Ibrahim spoke to reporters after training camp practice on Tuesday for the first time since the injury.
"When I first got hurt, I thought it was just a cramp. They didn’t tell me what it actually was until I was walking up to the locker room. It was surprising, but I put it in God’s hands. Whatever He wants me to go through, I’ll go through," Ibrahim said.
The 2020 Big Ten Running Back of the Year leaned on his mother, Latoya, to stay strong through the process of getting ready for surgery and the eventual rehab. He would later be joined in that process by fellow running backs Trey Potts and Bryce Williams, who both suffered their own season-ending injuries.
At some point, Ibrahim would have a decision to make – Leave Minnesota and try for the NFL Draft, or come back to the Gophers for one more season? In the week leading up to hosting rival Wisconsin, Ibrahim made it official that he was returning. He said it came down to conversations with those closest to him, the people he trusted the most – his teammates, and coaches PJ Fleck and Kenni Burns.
"I asked around, and most people were looking for what I was going to do. If I do this, what are we going to do? It was a real conversation. I came back for my teammates. Without my teammates I wouldn’t be here, so why not give it one more shot?" Ibrahim said. "I had a good group of people that I trusted, and I knew they were going to tell me what I needed to hear, and I believed in them. I think I made the right decision and once I made the decision, I stuck to it. There wasn’t no looking back, I did the right thing. I’m just moving forward."
His process of coming back from the injury included doing research on fellow athletes who have gone through the same injury. The list includes Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant an Cam Akers, and NFL running back who returned after just six months.
"Running back Mo" became "Coach Mo" the rest of last season, as he watched games from the sideline and urged his teammates on from a scooter, unable to walk.
"That’s the tough thing. It was the little things. Just being able to walk, learning how to walk again. Being able to run, learning how to run again, stuff like that that I took for granted. Now I don’t look past anything," Ibrahim said.
Now 11 months later, Ibrahim says he’s 100 percent. He first felt healthy around January, running "Flying 10s," a build-up sprint where athletes build up speed for 10-30 yards, then go into a full sprint for 10 yards.
He went through spring practices doing individual work, without contact. He took his first hit in nearly a year last week, as the Gophers opened fall camp.
"It was weird, I haven’t gotten tackled since Sept. 2, so it’s a rhythm thing. You just gotta learn how to do it all over again," Ibrahim said.
John Michael Schmitz, one of his fellow sixth-year seniors and the anchor on the offensive line, couldn’t be happier to have Ibrahim back.
"Mo is a great person. He’s one of my best friends, and just so excited to see him compete this 2022 season. Just very excited for him, I love seeing him on the field and he can’t wait to be out there," Schmitz said.
Fleck was down to Ky Thomas and Mar’Keise Irving as his running backs by the end of last season. He now has Ibrahim, Potts and Williams all back. Thomas and Irving have departed for other programs. Fleck probably cracks a smile every time Ibrahim and Potts get up from a tackle.
"First of all they’re happy to be out on the field. They never take a day for granted. Those two guys’ leadership is through the roof, they’ve got a smile on their face, they’re loving football and to see what they’ve been through and then see it on the field, that’s refreshing," Fleck said.
Ibrahim enters his final year with the Gophers eighth in program history with 3,003 career yards in 29 games. He’s tied for fourth in school history with 33 rushing touchdowns, and shares a school record with three 200-yard rushing games. He also owns school records with nine straight 100-yard games, and four rushing touchdowns in a game and eight straight games with a touchdown.
So what’s his message to those still going through adversity?
"Never lose faith. You’re going to have hard days, you’re going to have tough days where you’re looking at the top of Mount Everest and you’re thinking ‘Hey, I gotta get there.’ You’ve got break it down into little sections. At first I just wanted to walk again, then run again," Ibrahim said. "You look down and you realize you’re at the top of Mount Everest."