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Gophers' Bobek has plenty of heart

MINNEAPOLIS -- When Brian Bobek fell ill following a Saturday scrimmage in spring 2013, the Minnesota Gophers offensive lineman would be exhausted from climbing a staircase. He thought it was a bad case of the flu.

MINNEAPOLIS -  When Brian Bobek fell ill following a Saturday scrimmage in spring 2013, the Minnesota Gophers offensive lineman would be exhausted from climbing a staircase. He thought it was a bad case of the flu.
“He felt like he ran a mile because he was completely out of breath,” his father, Jeff Bobek, said.
But the Gophers training staff worried something worse was going on and monitored his vital signs. By the following Tuesday, they had Bobek admitted to the University hospital.
After multiple tests, Bobek was diagnosed with viral myocarditis, an inflammation of the muscular wall of the heart, which in severe cases can cause heart attacks and strokes.
To treat Bobek’s moderate case, doctors ordered him to refrain from any activity for six months - which ended his 2013 season before it started. He returned as a reserve lineman in 2014 but tore a medial collateral knee ligament in his third game back.
Now fully healthy, Bobek played well as Minnesota’s starting center in the season opener Sept. 3 against Texas Christian.
“He’s got a lot of heart and desire to play,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. “That’s a good story. A kid went through all that and stayed in there.”
Bobek’s start was the fifth-year senior’s first since the 2011 U.S. Army All-American Bowl, a showcase for standout high school players.
“It was tremendous,” he said. “It was pretty intense, but it was everything I thought it was going to be. It was just a lot of fun to be able to go out there and compete.”
When Bobek provided protection for future Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater on the East team in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio, Texas, he was looking forward to a college career at Ohio State.
Bobek was a four-star recruit from William Fremd High School in Palatine, Ill. His coach, Mike Donatucci, said he knew Bobek was special when he walked in as a freshman. By his senior year, Bobek could bench-press about 450 pounds, and his vertical jump was impressive.
“All of his physical measurables were outstanding,” Donatucci said. “He was like a freak. He could run and jump. He was strong as hell.”
Bobek picked Ohio State in December 2010 so he could play for Jim Tressel. But Tressel resigned amid an NCAA investigation in May 2011 before Bobek could suit up for the Buckeyes.
He played in a couple of early season games and earned a letter as a freshman in 2011, but he decided to transfer to Minnesota after the season.
“I was questioning whether I wanted to keep playing football, but ultimately I decided I would give it another shot somewhere else just because of how much I loved it,” Bobek said. “I think it was the best choice, because I couldn’t be happier here.”
Bobek sat out the 2012 season under NCAA transfer rules and played on the offensive scout team. Then came the viral myocarditis diagnosis.
“I start reading things on the Internet, and I’m getting a little scared based on what I’m reading,” said Jeff Bobek, who lettered in football for the Iowa Hawkeyes in 1980.
During his research, Jeff Bobek came across the story of former Northwestern coach Randy Walker, who had a more severe case of myocarditis. Walker was diagnosed after being hospitalized with chest pains in 2004. In 2006, he died of an apparent heart attack, with myocarditis as a “very possible” cause.
Myocarditis can affect a heart’s “ejection fraction,” or how well it pumps blood. Jeff Bobek said his son’s ejection fraction was about half the usual amount.
“So you can imagine that you are not getting oxygen to your muscles,” Jeff Bobek said.
That’s what contributed to the exhaustion from climbing stairs.
“It was unusual,” Brian said. “I’ve always been working out. For being a bigger guy (6-foot-2, 302 pounds), I’ve always prided myself on being in good shape. To not be able to go up a flight of stairs, it was frustrating.”
Further tests on Bobek’s heart showed no permanent scarring of the heart wall, and doctors determined he could make a full recovery, the first relief for Jeff and his wife, Terri.
“We felt better after that,” he said. “That was probably the key nervous point for us.”
Brian Bobek felt worse before he felt any better. He lost about 40 pounds in the two months following the diagnosis, from his playing weight of 302 to about 265. Over the next four months, he packed the weight back on - up to 310.
“I had a lot of anxiety and stuff like that in not being able to do anything,” he said. “Once I was able to start working out again, I was able to reshape my body slowly to where it needed to be.”
Bobek didn’t feel he was in peak condition last season. He played some against Eastern Illinois and San Jose State. Against Northwestern, he took the field for one snap, an extra-point attempt.
That’s when he tore his MCL.
“Right when you think you are healthy again, something else happens,” he said.
Jeff Bobek had to provide positive parental advice; it wasn’t the first time. His older son, also named Jeff, tore his hamstring as a walk-on at Michigan State in 2009 but came back as a fullback for the Spartans from 2010-12.
“In football, you’re going to experience various setbacks, and some people experience more than their fair share,” said the elder Bobek, a certified strength and conditioning specialist. “Even though (Brian’s MCL tear) was somewhat discouraging, he wasn’t contributing to the team the way he wanted to anyway.
“We tried to look at the experience of how can we turn this around to be recommitted and be more positive. I think he was pretty resilient. I don’t think it was something that got him down too much.”
Before Bobek’s first college start last week against TCU, offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Matt Limegrover stressed that he wasn’t looking for Bobek to go out that night and win the Outland Trophy, the award given to the best interior lineman in the nation.
“I told him, ‘Just go in there and play and have a little fun and enjoy this, because it’s been a long time coming,’ ” Limegrover said. “I really felt like he did that.”
While Bobek hopes to keep building on that strong performance, he applied weeks ago to the NCAA for a medical hardship waiver for 2014. As is the Bobeks’ way, they are hopeful Brian will be granted a sixth year of eligibility for next season.

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