WEST LAFAYETTE, INDIANA—Jason Werner had lost count of exactly how long ago his last football game was.
"It's been awhile, right? Over 500 days since I last played," the Purdue linebacker said wistfully after recording 11 tackles in the Boilermakers' season-opening win over Toledo.
Almost, Jason. The actual number is 619 days, making it nearly two years since Werner played in the 2007 season finale. That means almost 15,000 hours of waiting, dreaming, and agonizing from the sideline, nearly 900,000 minutes of a football player not being able to compete on the field.
So we can forgive the Greenwood, Ind., native for being antsy.
"Going out there today, I was very excited, because I know I did everything I could to stay healthy," said Werner. "It took a while to calm down a little bit."
Werner and safety Torri Williams are both hoping to finish their Boilermaker careers on a winning note after perservering through all kinds of physical adversity to get back on the football field.
Werner missed all of the 2006 and 2008 seasons for Purdue with a bad back, while Williams sat out 2005 due to a broken fibula, missed nearly the entire 2006 season with a dislocated right knee, and (yes, there's more) ruptured his Achilles tendon halfway through the 2007 campaign.
For Purdue to qualify for a bowl game in Coach Danny Hope's first season at the helm, both players will need to stay healthy and make plays to lead an experienced defensive unit. After the first game of 2009, all signs are promising.
"We didn't know what to expect," Williams told me after the 52-31 victory. "New coach, new team. Everyone was excited. I think we did a great job."
The seniors understand each other's importance.
"I love playing out there with Torri," Werner said. "I know he's capable of making a big play at any time, and he's going to lead our team to do good things. It's his sixth year, so he's been around a long time. He's seen a lot of football and he's a great player."
Similarly, Williams had nothing but praise for Werner.
"He played huge for us today," Williams said after Werner's career-high outing against Toledo. "It's always good to have a guy of his athleticism and character to be out on the field with. He was all over the field today."
Defensive tackle Mike Neal was just glad to see Werner wearing the black and gold again.
"He played well, and that's good for him," said Neal. "He hasn't played a complete game since...ever, I don't believe, so that's good."
Hope agreed, saying he was glad to see Werner hold up for the whole game. He cited Werner as a tremendously hard worker who went out and played hard—"and that's what Jason Werner needed to do."
According to Werner, the trick in his first game back was getting plenty of oxygen.
"My goal was just to make sure I breathe well," he said. "It took a while to calm down a little bit. It was all right, but I expect it to get a lot better through the year."
As the season goes on, Werner and Williams will be counted on to teach the younger Boilers a thing or two about hard-nosed defense, and the veterans welcome the opportunity.
"I just want to lead them in anything I know how to do," said Werner. "For the most part, these young guys have good motors and they're good leaders themselves. They're going to do a great job filling shoes when I'm gone."
Before the duo graduates, however, they have designs on returning Purdue to postseason play—no matter what the experts say.
"Obviously, people have made their judgments and that's fine," Werner said of the many prognosticators that have the Boilermakers finishing in the Big Ten cellar. "We've got a lot of great talent, and we're all excited. We know that we're capable of doing great things, so it's just up to us to put in the work and do it."
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