SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Ty Zimmerman limped off the field at Carter Stadium on Nov. 10 hoping for the best, but fearing the worst. He had suffered a lower leg injury during a 23-10 victory over TCU, and he wasn’t sure what came next.
He could walk slowly under his own power, so he was optimistic he would be able to play the following week. But K-State’s training staff told him he would need to meet with a doctor the next day for a proper diagnosis. That’s always scary.
The news turned out to be awful. Doctors informed him he would need to wear a protective boot on his right foot and use crutches for at least a month. He was going to miss K-State’s final two games of the regular season, a realization that hurt more than the injury itself.
But the diagnosis came with one positive. Zimmerman’s doctor told him that, with the right amount of luck and effort, he might be able to play in K-State’s bowl game.
“He mentioned that I would have a chance,” Zimmerman said Saturday at a Fiesta Bowl news conference, “depending on how everything healed and how hard I went about the treatment.”
Zimmerman’s current health tells all you need to know about how seriously he approached rehabilitation. He watched the Wildcats lose to Baylor and defeat Texas from the sideline, but spent as much time as possible in the training room in between. One week after the regular season ended, the boot came off, the crutches went away and he returned to practice.
Now he is a full participant. He practiced in full pads with the Wildcats on Saturday at Scottsdale Community College and spoke with the media about returning to action in time to face a potent Oregon offense in the Fiesta Bowl.
“Being out, you don’t really realize what you have in front of you until you lose it,” Zimmerman said. “That’s the way it was for me. I have a better appreciation for the game now. You are one play away from being done, and then it happens. It’s crazy. I just had great appreciation for the game and wanted to be back out there.”
His return will be significant.
With Zimmerman starting at safety the Wildcats went 10-0, holding down powerful offenses such as Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and West Virginia along the way. Zimmerman made an impact in each of those games, making 45 tackles and intercepting five passes. Four of those picks came in consecutive games, with him continually positioning himself in the ideal spot where quarterbacks thought he had blown his coverage but where he could still make a play on the ball.
As a former high school quarterback, a team captain and a dedicated student of the game, he knows as much about football as anyone on the team and spends more time in the video room than some coaches.
“He studies the tape all week long, so he knows how people set up, how certain wide receivers split or motion,” defensive coordinator Tom Hayes said. “You can build anticipation through the week as much as he watches tape.… He is a very good anticipator. He has got really good instincts for the game.”
So good that he earned third-team All-American honors by some publications even with his season cut short.
“He will be one of the best players to ever play here when he’s done,” K-State receiver Chris Harper said last week. “That’s an easy one. There is no question about that. He changes our defense totally.”
Without Zimmerman, the Wildcats suffered their only loss, a crushing 52-24 defeat at Baylor that ended their chances of reaching the BCS championship game.
Freshman Dante Barnett started in his place, and the Bears took advantage by throwing deep against him for the game’s first touchdown and piling up 580 yards of offense.
All Zimmerman could do was watch.
“I don’t want to say things would have been different,” Zimmerman said. “I don’t think one person can make that much of a difference. But I would have loved to have been out there with the guys.”
He will be when the Wildcats take the field at University of Phoenix Stadium on Thursday. K-State defenders are glad to have their veteran leader back in the lineup.
“He is the conductor,” senior cornerback Nigel Malone said. “He is the one who gets us lined up. For him to come back is only going to help us. He is probably the smartest football guy on the team. It’s good to have his talent and his leadership back out there. Not being out there with us was eating him up. I’m glad he comes back and gets to be a part of this.”
But can Zimmerman play the way he did in the middle of the season? All players respond differently to injuries. Some need several games to return to their normal form. Others are so excited about getting back on the field that they play brilliantly.
“I don’t know how hard it is going to be yet,” Zimmerman said. “I wish I could know, but you never know until you are in the game. Every game is the same. You are out there until you make that first play. Once you make that first play everything kind of slows down and you’re just playing football again.”
If he can , K-State’s secondary might be able to give Oregon’s offense fits the way it did during a 10-0 start.
“He is the kind of guy who is always in the right place at the right time and in position to make plays,” Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota said. “That’s how he made his five interceptions this year. I think Kansas State’s defense is awesome all the way around, but he makes a big difference in the secondary.”