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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Injuries turn players into coaches

    Dilon Hansen
    Dilon Hansen

    Editor’s note: This is the second part of a multistory series looking at former Arizona football players and their lives after their playing careers conclude. The first story in this series ran in the Aug. 28 issue of the Wildcat.

    After being diagnosed with life-threatening medical conditions in the past 12 months, former Arizona football players Akin Akinniyi and Dillon Hansen had the choice of foregoing football and assimilating into the flood of UA students heading to class each day.

    But just as quickly as their injuries led them to end their playing days, so, too, did they commit to new roles with the Wildcats, as undergraduate assistant coaches.

    “”It’s definitely a learning experience,”” said Hansen, a former guard who is now an assistant to offensive line coach Eric Wolford. “”I wish I was playing, but I think it’s the right thing to do.””

    Take a long glance at the east sideline during an Arizona football home game. Among the mutable stream of mostly red jerseys, you might detect Akinniyi or Hansen decked out in a white polo shirt and khaki pants, standing just short of the playing field.

    Only a season ago, both men were liable to be lounging out on benches alongside teammates, waiting, perhaps, for their numbers to receive a rare call to action.

    Akinniyi had been readying himself for such a situation in the team’s McKale Center weight room on July 14, only two weeks before the start of fall camp.

    Then, during a set of 225-pound incline bench presses, he felt a familiar, sharp pain in the right side of his chest and wanted to stop for the day.

    But a few players had already excused themselves from their workouts, and UA strength and conditioning coach Corey Edmond wasn’t open to losing another.

    “”He told me, ‘Now you don’t give me an excuse,'”” Akinniyi said. “”But I was telling him, ‘I’m not, I’m not. I can’t breathe.'””

    A week later, at Northwest Medical Center about 10 miles from campus, Akinniyi lay in agony in a hospital bed with an oxygen tube running through his back into his chest cavity.

    His right lung had collapsed for the second time since Akinniyi joined the team in 2002, and during surgery, doctors decided to attach the organ to his chest wall with talcum powder.

    The adhesion process would be gradual, giving the 22-year-old a tolerable yet persistent burn day and night during his week-long stay.

    A redshirt senior who was primed to play a main backup role in the Wildcats’ linebacker corps, Akinniyi was told he may be able to return for the team’s last few games this season.

    His dad, Akin Sr., asked him if returning for four or five games would be worth possibly injuring himself further, perhaps permanently.

    “”I weighed all the options, and I decided it wasn’t worth going out there and risking my breathing, you know what I mean,”” Akinniyi said.

    Hansen can relate.

    At Los Cruces High School in New Mexico, he was an injury list unto himself, suffering a torn meniscus, two dislocated kneecaps, a dislocated shoulder and a sprained shoulder, along with various ankle ailments.

    During one game, he jumped into a pile-up after a fumble and landed wrong on his neck, throwing that body part into peril as well.

    It wasn’t until Hansen made the jump to Division I-A football that the constant physical strain of working out and hitting in practice began to take a distinctive toll.

    Hansen redshirted as a true freshmen in 2004 and lined up for field goals and point-after attempts the following season. All the while, his back bothered him, and neck stingers were becoming more and more common after contact.

    Last winter, he received a chilling diagnosis: He had developed degenerative spinal disease in his back, and vertebrae in his neck had been shifted dangerously close to his spinal cord.

    Even worse, doctors told him, neither injury was likely to improve, especially if he decided to play again.

    That option was long nixed by the time spring practice rolled around in March.

    “”What they told me I had, it wasn’t much of a choice at all,”” Hansen said. “”It was like, ‘You need to do this.'””

    While Akinniyi is now taking an active on-field role with the team as he moves toward a career in coaching, Hansen has stayed relatively anonymous under Wolford’s stead.

    His main duties are to analyze plays he sees during games and on film to help prepare cards the coach uses to instruct the team’s linemen.

    Down on the sideline, Hansen watches each offensive play and tracks elements like down and distance, the yard line and what kind of strategies the defense employs, such as blitzing.

    During fall camp in August, he also was charged with helping freshman Cory Elmore and walk-on Shawn Best, both newcomers to his old position, with fundamentals like footwork.

    “”He’s a huge supporter. He loves us,”” redshirt freshman tackle Eben Britton said of Hansen. “”We wish he could still be out there. It’s tough not having him.””

    For all the practical experience he’s gaining, Hansen, 20, said he has no aspirations to coach one day.

    If anything, he would like to be a director of player personnel, like Arizona’s Erick Harper, who deals more with administrative work than week-to-week game preparation.

    “”I have tended to stay away from being a coach,”” said Hansen, who will remain with the team on a medical scholarship until he graduates, “”but (my situation) has opened my eyes to a lot of things I could do with athletics.””

    Akinniyi, a self-described “”inside man”” for the team’s defense, is still finding ways to help his teammates excel on the field.

    During Arizona’s 21-10 loss to Washington on Saturday, Akinniyi said he kept linebackers alert of what plays to expect given the Huskies’ offensive formation.

    Whenever quarterback Isaiah Stanback lined up in the shotgun, Akinniyi advised players to watch for any of three run plays – the quarterback draw, the zone-read option and the speed option.

    “”It really helps,”” said junior linebacker Spencer Larsen, a friend of Akinniyi’s and a fellow 2002 recruit. “”It helps the young guys, definitely, because he’s there, and they have confidence in him. He also knows some things.””

    Akinniyi said he wants to pursue a graduate assistant position in the near future, preferably at a school close to his home in Dallas.

    In the meantime, he said, he’s been keeping a close eye on the on-field habits of UA head coach Mike Stoops and his staff.

    “”I’m taking everything in and learning as much as possible every day,”” Akinniyi said. “”We have some of the best coaches in the country working for this team.””

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