NIU football: Injured season no free pass for Jamaal Bass

Redshirt senior linebacker Jamaal Bass (6) celebrates a tackle for a loss Jan. 8, 2012, in the Bowl game against the Arkansas State Red Wolves. Bass knew what it took to play at a high level and used his experience to help his teammates improve their games.

By Frank Gogola

Redshirt senior linebacker Jamaal Bass, while reflecting on his final season, mentions four times how unfortunate it was for him that he ended his career on the sideline. He also says three times after a December practice how great he felt to see his teammates step up in his absence.

Such is the person Bass’ teammates have come to refer to simply as JB: the ultimate team-oriented player who wants nothing but the best for his teammates, his brothers.

Bass’ desire to see his teammates succeed was boosted to another level when he came to the realization that his career at NIU would end early after he re-aggravated a knee injury Oct. 4 at Huskie Stadium against the Kent State Golden Flashes. Never fully healing from an offseason leg surgery, he played in two games before he “knew that things weren’t looking too good” when he left the field for the final time in early October.

“At that point, it was real tough for me because I was still in pain, but I was just trying to fight and just give my teammates my all,” Bass said.

Bass’ willingness to see his teammates succeed combined with his work ethic and the ease with which he reads and interprets film and in-game situations leads his teammates to speak on how Bass is more than just another player on the field.

“He was a very savvy player, I would say,” said Boomer Mays, redshirt junior middle linebacker. “He was like a coach on the field because he like knew the offense, he knew what the teams was gonna run. He was in the film room … he’s always in the film room. He’s like an extra coach on the field when he’s out there.”

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Coaching is always something Bass, who graduated in December with a degree in general studies, said he has considered getting into after his playing career was over. He got somewhat of a jump on coaching when an injury from the 2013 season effectively derailed his final campaign in cardinal and black.

Things began to take a tumble for Bass against the Massachusetts Minutemen Nov. 2, 2013. During the 63-19 blowout win he fell down awkwardly and tweaked his knee. Bass was hobbled but played in four of the Huskies’ final five games. At season’s end he was named to the All-MAC First Team, posting career highs in total tackles (88), tackles for loss (six), forced fumbles (two), passes defensed (two) and sacks (1.5).

Little did Bass know that he wouldn’t have much of an opportunity to break those career highs in his final go-around in 2014. He underwent offseason surgery that forced him to miss all of spring camp. He expected to be back for fall camp, but prolonged recovery in the offseason restricted his practice time during August.

The Aug. 28 season opener against the Presbyterian Blue Hose came and went with no sign of Bass, who didn’t make his return to the field until Sept. 20 against the Arkansas Razorbacks. He didn’t record any statistics as the Huskies were promptly blown out, 52-14, in Fayetteville, Ark.

Bass played in the Huskies’ next game, a 17-14 win over the Kent State Golden Flashes, racking up six tackles. But, he re-aggravated his knee during the game and didn’t step foot on the field again. He said he tried to stay optimistic about returning but came to terms with his time being up.

“It’s been filled with lots of ups and downs,” Bass said. “Through it all I’m still blessed. It’s an unfortunate situation for me, but I tend to go about things by looking at the positives of things. Getting to see different people step up and make plays [is] fun, fun to see.”

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One of those players who stepped up in Bass’ absence was redshirt junior linebacker Rasheen Lemon. Lemon filled Bass’ shoes as best as he could after sitting out the majority of the 2013 season because of academic issues.

In 14 starts in 2014, Lemon was named to the All-MAC Third Team as he finished second on the team in tackles (90), quarterback hurries (six) and forced fumbles (two). He also tallied three tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.

Lemon credits part of his success to Bass giving him tips and pointers in the film room and on the practice field, more or less acting like an extra coach.

“Jamaal bring an extra spark to the game,” Lemon said. “Jamaal is what we like to call a film rat. All he do is like to study film. He know the play before everybody else know it.

“Without Jamaal on the field it’s kind of tougher … but on the sideline he helped me as much as he can, tried to get me the tips as much as he can, tried to be my eyes on the sidelines. He’s still around, just don’t got that dominant effect like he do on the field.”

For Mays, watching film with Bass is something in itself because of Bass’ keen eye and unique approach in breaking down tape.

“JB gets you out there in the film room. He teaches you how the offense thinks,” Mays said.

Bass would be forced to watch those offenses from the sideline for the majority of 2014, but he still tried to make his impact felt by working with his teammates so they would be in the best possible positions to succeed.

“Not having JB out there, one of our two seniors, that hurts you, but at the same time he’s right there in practice with us, he’s right there in the film room,” Mays said. “He’s never missed a day, so it’s like he never left.”

And Bass had been there with the team through the ups and downs of the season. That included the Homecoming loss to the Central Michigan Chippewas, the MAC Championship game win over the Bowling Green Falcons and the Boca Raton Bowl loss to the Marshall Thundering Herd.

The loss to the Thundering Herd stung the most for Bass not only because he always wants to see his teammates excel, but also because the bowl game took place in Boca Raton, Fla., about 45 minutes north of where he grew up in Miramar, Fla. He said being able to end his career in Florida “would have been amazing.”

This season “hasn’t been easy,” Bass said. “But, what makes it easy is seeing my teammates go out there and have fun and leave it all on the line for me.”