Season-ending injuries to significant players debilitated the Arizona football program since its fortunes appeared to be golden after the 2008 Las Vegas Bowl win over BYU.
The Wildcats have been forced to endure season-ending injuries to starting tight end Rob Gronkowski (back), linebacker Jake Fischer (knee) and safety Adam Hall (knee and ankle) in the last four years. The UA’s top returning receiver, Austin Hill, a bonafide pro prospect, suffered a torn ACL last week in practice, requiring surgery and endangering his chance to play in the 2013 season.
Knee injuries have riddled the UA football program to the point that former defensive lineman Willie Mobley (who has transferred to New Mexico State) tore his ACL playing a pickup basketball game in 2011.
Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez was quoted as saying by Anthony Gimino of TucsonCitizen.com that he is “sick” about Hill’s injury.
“It just makes me sick, because he was such a great player. But he still will be,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t know when his time frame is to return, but he’ll be back bigger and stronger with the way technology is today and all that.
“I really felt bad for him. I know Austin is a tough, strong guy, and he’ll bounce back.”
Arizona’s basketball program has been more fortunate in terms of season-ending injuries over the years. Only one of the more significant hoop stars — Steve Kerr — had to sit out a season in 1986-87 after tearing an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and shredding a medial collateral ligament (MCL).
Kerr suffered the serious knee injury as part of the U.S. team playing in the World Championships in Madrid. He was lost for the 1986-87 season, a year in which the Wildcats went 18-12, one of only two seasons Lute Olson won less than 20 games in his 24-year coaching career at Arizona.
The only other season-ending knee injury for a basketball player since the start of the Olson era happened to reserve forward Kevin Flanagan, who missed the 1991-92 season because of a torn ACL.
Yahoo! Sports recently asked Kerr about Derrick Rose’s knee injury that kept him sidelined this season for the Chicago Bulls.
“These guys all know that everybody comes back from the ACL nowadays and the surgery and rehab are so much better than they were 30 years ago,” Kerr told Yahoo. “So it’s not a career-ender, it’s just a pause.
“The biggest thing is just to be patient, and that’s what Derrick Rose is doing right now. He’s taking his time as he should. You’ve got to feel comfortable in every which way, not just with your cutting and running. But with your mind, and your ability to make a basketball play without thinking about it. Those are all things that come with time and with patience, and that’s why I like what Derrick and the Bulls are doing right now.”
The Bulls have managed a 43-37 record without Rose but would have 10 more wins with him on the active roster.
Arizona’s basketball team finished 18-12 without Kerr in 1986-87 despite Olson having All-American forward Sean Elliott and one of his best centers, Anthony Cook, on the roster. Kerr’s return in 1987-88 sparked the Wildcats to their first Final Four appearance.
The Wildcats failed to make the NCAA tournament in 2010 and 2012, coincidentally in seasons that inspirational leader Kevin Parrom missed 26 games because of foot injuries and a bullet to this right leg in a home-invasion shooting incident.
Kerr and Parrom each earned national courage honors for their return to action.
Gronkowski missed the 2009 season because of a strained back. He did not return to the Wildcats the following season and has become the best at his position in the NFL after his second-round selection in the 2010 NFL draft. The Wildcats, who looked like they were on an upward slope after beating BYU in the 2008 Las Vegas Bowl, declined starting in 2009 without Gronkowski.
The football team went 19-19 from 2009-2011 in the three years Gronkowski, Fischer and Hall were on the sidelines in street clothes. Stoops lost his job.
Have we seen the last of Hill, a junior, in an Arizona uniform? Will his fate be similar to that of Gronkowski, spending his last year in Tucson rehabilitating for an NFL career? It’s a question worth asking because Hill redshirted his freshman season and would lose a year of eligibility if he returns in 2014.
The Arizona football program could use a receiver like Hill to help ease the transition of a new quarterback leading the Wildcats in 2013. The UA has other capable receivers such as David Richards, Tyler Slavin and Terrence Miller. Time will tell if they can become home run threats like Hill.
“He had a lot going for him, and I know he had big plans of going to the NFL after this year,” Slavin told Gimino. “He had big things to do. Man, it just hurts.”
Site publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner