This Monday practice would not begin for another 30 minutes, but already there were 'Cats spread about the field working on their various crafts. Now more arrived, individually and in pairs and in larger groups, and then here came their coach, Pat Fitzgerald, and emanating from him was a palpable air of buoyancy. "I think I tweeted out this morning something like, 'It's Christmas. It's the first day of practice,'" he would soon be saying. "So, yeah. We're excited to get things going."
There is, for each of those involved, always this air of excitement surrounding the first practice of a new season, but there was even more at work here for both Trumpy and the middle linebacker Damien Proby. For the former had not been on a field since that October day last fall when he ripped up his left ACL against Illinois, and the latter had suffered the same fate through the spring as he recovered from some clean-up surgery on his right knee.
This is no small loss for a player, for any player, who now so suddenly finds himself divorced from his team and separated from his friends and robbed of that game that means so much to him. "Honestly, just being together as family," says Proby, explaining just what he missed while removed from the fray. "I tried to always be there (at practices), but there were times I couldn't be there because of circumstances. So it was just being on the field in general. Being out there with the defense, having fun, joking around, trying to make plays. But that's something, I plan on coming back now and get the competitive drive back going. That's definitely what I missed the most."
"It's terrible," says Trumpy, whose absence from the field was far longer than Proby's. "When it (the injury) happened, the Michigan game was the next game. I remember being in the weight room and everyone walked past for Walk With Us. I had to turn away, it was so hard to deal with. You invest so much, you put so much into it, you want to be out there with your best friends, your teammates, and it's hard being away. It really is. It was really, really hard for me, the whole process."
He, in fact, lost some 20 pounds while going through the process, falling from his playing weight of 210 all the way down to 190. "I don't know if that was because I lost a lot of muscle or because I wasn't eating," he will remember. "But it was just so depressing. Like I didn't go to meetings because I'd be in the training room. I didn't go to practice because I'd be in the weight room working on my upper body. So I was basically alone all day. It was tough. I love being out here at practice with my friends. It was really tough."
Still, just moments later, he will avow, "I'm glad it happened. I'm a lot different from when it happened. I grew from it. When you're faced with adversity, you learn how to deal with it and become a better person. You cherish what you have. So I'm very, very happy to be back and to be out here with my friends and playing football."
Proby, too, was altered by the process even though his absence from the field stretched only through those days of spring practice. "It's an entirely different beast, honestly," is how he remembers those days. "It makes you take on the role of being more of a coach, in a sense. You're trying to coach up the younger players. You learn a lot from being on the sideline. I wouldn't wish that upon anyone. But you definitely learn a lot seeing things from a different perspective. I think it helped me a lot, which I hope is going to be proven during the season."
They slept well, both will say, before the first practice for that season. Still, admits Trumpy, "I was definitely extremely anxious. It's been 10 months. It's been a long road coming back from the injury, the surgery. So I was very excited, very anxious. I slept great. But I was obviously thinking about practice and there's obviously a lot of ifs coming back, so I was very excited and very anxious to come back."
"It was more of an excitement thing to get back going," echoes Proby. "Taking that break since (the bowl game in) January, that's a very long break to be off the field as any athlete would know. That's something I was looking forward to getting over."
Then it was Monday and, in their locker room, each slipped into his shorts and pulled on his jersey and grabbed his helmet, and now he walked across some blacktop and made a hard left and under his feet was some grass and at last each was back on the field, back to that place they had been away from for so long. "It was good. It felt good. But it wasn't anything out of the ordinary," Proby will say at one point, thinking back on the moment.
But then, a heartbeat later, he will admit, "It was a very exciting venture. I was very grateful to be back. It was nice to be back, that's for sure. No one likes to sit on the sidelines. I can't imagine any true competitor enjoying sitting on the sidelines. So I definitely enjoy having that behind me."
"It was so nice, I can't really explain it," Trumpy himself will finally say. "I've always been someone who really enjoyed practice. It doesn't really bother me. So just being back out here, it's just really emotional. It's just really nice to be back. It's been so long."
He joined the 'Cats in 2009 and, from that day until that October day he went down against Illinois, Mike Trumpy wore No. 29. But between those dates, he suffered both a fractured wrist (against the Illini in 2010) and a concussion (in last season's opener against Boston College), and so here, as he talks, the number on his chest is 32. "New knee, new number," he will say when asked about the switch. "Twenty-nine's been unlucky for me, unhealthy, and this was my high school number. If I'd played the whole year last year, I wouldn't have changed. But I felt I had to change it."