The 2013 Wildcats were without the on-field production and energy that tailback and return specialist Venric Mark provided game-in and game-out during NU's 10-3 2012 season. On Tuesday, Mark met the media for the first time since the fall to discuss his injury troubles, his vision for his upcoming fifth year and the focus of his teammates this spring.
One point of interest Tuesday was running back Venric Mark, who talked to the cameras and the microphones for the first time since having surgery on the fractured ankle that caused him to miss so much of last season. "I feel a lot better," he said when asked about his health. "I've been away for football for what seems like two years. It hasn't been that long, but I'm feeling better, I'm feeling good, I'm almost fully recovered from the injury. I'm three weeks ahead of schedule, so I really can't complain. I'm sprinting. I'm running. I'm cutting. I'm getting back into football, which I love doing. That's why I'm happy right now."
But there was also another point of interest on this morning the `Cats practiced for the first time since spring break, and that was recent National Labor Relations Board ruling that granted them the right to form a union. "Honestly, me personally, I didn't really read up on all of that," Mark would say at one point when asked his reaction to that ruling. "All I can tell you is I support my team. I'm still here at Northwestern and my number one and number two goal is to get my degree and finish out with another very strong year, become another All-American if possible. That's my main focus, and that's the end of that story."
Then later, and more pointedly, he would add: "We're really not worried about the union at all. That's separate from our locker room, if that answers all of your questions. Yeah, it's a big thing, it's getting a lot of media attention. But at the end of the day, that's outside of the locker room that we have right now. That's something people really need to understand. The guys in the locker room now, we have a goal, which is to try to get to the Big Ten championship. So other outside distractions, we're really not paying attention to (them) right now."
Mark, to recap, played sparingly in the `Cats season opener last fall against Cal; sat out the next three games; returned for their prime time showdown with Ohio State; and then was injured a week later at Wisconsin. The moment arrived late on their second possession and after he accepted a handoff with his team facing a second-and-goal at the Badger three.
"I ended up cutting it up," he remembered Tuesday. "I got hit from both sides. Stayed on my feet, I'm chopping my feet. Someone else comes in and dives, tries to take out the pile and ends up chipping the side of my ankle. Me personally, I thought it was an ankle sprain. So I stayed in the game."
That drive would end two plays later with a Jeff Budzien field goal and then, after the `Cat defense forced the Badgers into a three-and-out, Mark trotted out to receive the punt. But, he would recall, "I'm bouncing around and I'm like, `Hold on. I've had an ankle sprain before and this is not the same.'" So later, after making a fair catch, he returned to the sideline and said, "Hey, my ankle's hurt, my ankle's hurt."
"Can you play?" he was asked.
"I didn't want to not play. I'd already missed four games," Mark said Tuesday. "So I said `Spat me up' and they spatted me up, I went out there, tried to run a route, and it definitely wasn't working."
The union issue, to recap, began with a team meeting in which the signatures needed to put the question before the NLRB were acquired.
"Yeah, guys did sign cards supporting Kain [Colter] and what he's trying to do and his movement," Mark said Tuesday when asked about that. "But, at the end of the day, as I stated, everything outside of our locker room is outside of our locker room. So some guys signed, some guys didn't. I don't know if people knew what they were getting into, or if they thought it was going to turn out the way it did. But at the end of the day, now it's time to get back to work."
Is it possible the players didn't understand the ramifications of what they were doing?
"I can't speak for everybody and what they were thinking."
What about him personally?
"I chose to do what I chose to do. (He will later say he's not permitted to say just what that was.) But as I stated, my number one goal is to get my degree and go to the NFL, or pursue another job if that doesn't work out."
Mark, after some weeks of uncertainty, was finally shut down for 2013, and now he faced a choice. He could declare for the NFL draft or request an injury redshirt year so he could return for another season.
"That never crossed my mind. I can honestly say that never crossed my mind at all," he will say of the first possibility. "One year and done, that's really not my thing. My first two years here, I understand they were trying to prep me, to get me ready. Then I had a good junior year, but I wanted to end on a good note. This school's done a lot for me, my family. It's a great opportunity just to be here, and I wanted to get my degree, make sure I finish out, and have one more good year."
So the request was made and granted, and eventually surgery was performed. "It was a small surgery," he will explain. "They made an incision about the size of a finger nail, went in there, got out two loose bodies, sewed me back up. That was it. After the surgery, I didn't feel bad. There were no side effects."
But, of course, there was time needed for rehabilitation, which is why he is not participating in this spring's practice. Instead, he said, he is "Making sure I stay into it mentally. That's the most-important thing. My physical abilities, of course I have to sharpen them by staying in the weight room, by making sure I stay conditioned. But that's only half of it. The other half is making sure I'm in my playbook; making sure I'm out there coaching up other guys; if I see a mistake, making sure I hold other guys accountable; making sure I hold myself accountable. That's really the main thing."
Now someone brings up the history of former quarterback Dan Persa, who missed a month of games following his own off-season surgery. Does Mark envision having any similar limitations?
"I don't have any question that there will be any limitations," he said. "You bring up Dan Persa, he had an Achilles (tear). That was a whole different injury from what I had. Mine was a little small procedure. That was the first surgery I ever had in my life. But at the end of the day, when I went back to the doctor, he said I was three weeks ahead of schedule. I'm supposed to be in a boot. Clearly I'm not in a boot anymore. I'm already sprinting and running."
Pat Fitzgerald, of course, was also asked about the NLRB ruling on Tuesday. "I think the things that I've said are pretty clear," he answered. "So as I move forward, I'm coaching the football team and that's my focus."
But one, practical, salient question still had to be asked and it was this. Does the issue threaten the cohesion of his team?
"You guys have been out to practice everyday. You can probably answer that better than me," he said. "I think anytime there are things discussed about you that are out of your control, you can go a lot of different ways. But the focus of this group has been great since day one. I'm really proud of them for that."
"Oh, not at all. It doesn't threaten anything," Venric Mark will later echo when asked the same question. "The union situation is the union situation. But we're here at Northwestern and we're glad to be here. Northwestern has treated us all well and we know that. And we know that it is a privilege to be here. So at the end of the day, we're all going to support our former teammate. But we also know we're here to get a degree and we're here to play football. We have another season to look forward to, and I think we're as close together and as strong as we've ever been in the program."