The roller coaster ride of Harnish’s health


Chandler Harnish has faced many injuries and health problems in his college career.

By Chris Dertz

DeKALB | A roller coaster’s path is an interesting thing.

It can contain any number of unexpected turns and flips, mountains and valleys, and once it’s begun, there’s no straying from its path until you reach the end.

The last eight months of Chandler Harnish’s life have been the craziest roller coaster ride he’s ever been on.

After sustaining a knee injury against Toledo last season, the quarterback’s position with the team was in flux.

Harnish had sustained a rare injury in which no structural damage was done to the knee, but the redshirt junior was still experiencing a great deal of pain throughout the end of the 2009 season.

Associate athletic trainer Kammy Powell worked with Harnish through the end of the season, and after NIU’s International Bowl loss, Harnish saw three separate specialists who all initially came to the same conclusion.

“He saw a lot of specialists, and they all agreed he needed [surgery],” Powell said. “It’s a surgery that you get a 50-50 shot of returning to sports from.”

Harnish was faced with a decision: continue the rehab he had begun with Powell in preparation for the surgery, or follow through with a surgery that the quarterback knew could forever alter his football career.

But around the time that NIU went on spring break, something happened. After being on an efficient rehab regimen laid out by Powell and strength and conditioning coach Eric Klein, Harnish’s knee started recovering more rapidly.

“During spring break, I just started feeling better,” Harnish said. “I was running on it and moving on it, so I e-mailed my doctor and he said ‘go with it, see what happens.'”

Harnish hasn’t looked back since. Thanks to a work ethic raved about by Powell and Klein, instilled in him by head coach Jerry Kill, Harnish was taking snaps by the end of spring practice.

“Anytime you have a kid that works as hard as Chandler does, you know that good things can happen,” Powell said. “He’s an athlete that listens, does what he’s supposed to, and works really hard.”

It was surprising, given that the surgery would have given Harnish a 9-12 month recovery period. He approached the situation thinking simply “don’t fix something if it’s not broken.”

But while there was no structural damage to Harnish’s knee, he experienced pain throughout the rehab process. To him, it was just part of the daily grind – what he called a “mental test every day” – and his determination to power through paid off.

“We put an emphasis on getting the glutes and hamstrings strong because ultimately they control what happens in the knee,” Klein said. “He was on the field [in the spring] with Kammy doing some sprint-outs and things, and I was really surprised to see that.”

Harnish’s quick recovery put him in a tough situation, however.

DeMarcus Grady had been taking the majority of the first team reps in the spring. Harnish had to find a way to support Grady while dealing with his own competitive drive to remain the starting quarterback. He tried to be the best team player he could, teaching Grady what he could,

Yet through all of this, Harnish developed a massive chip on his shoulder. Out to prove to everyone that had forgotten about him what he was capable of doing, he used his time out, which he calls “a blessing in disguise,” to absorb NIU’s offensive schemes, improve his mental capacity for the game and mature both as a quarterback and as a man.

“It wasn’t easy going from being a starting quarterback for a couple of years to not being sure if I’m going to play,” Harnish said. “I didn’t know my role, and that helped me grow up as a person,”

After sitting out the first game against Iowa State, that maturity now has Harnish playing quarterback at an all-conference level. He has completed 71 percent of his passes, and been named MAC West Offensive Player of the Week two straight weeks.

The signal-caller gives all the credit for his maturation to Kill, whose commitment to players’ development as men, as well as athletes, has had a lasting impression on Harnish.

It was the support of those closest to him – Kill, his family, and close friends – that led Harnish through an ordeal that gave him a new perspective on both life and the game of football.

And it’s a perspective that has the quarterback playing the best football of his career.