CEDAR FALLS — It was an injury to his right foot.
That is about as much as University of Northern Iowa linebacker Chris Kolarevic wants to talk about what kept him off the field for nearly a year.
Last Saturday at Weber State, Kolarevic made a triumphant return to the field, recording four tackles and a sack while playing the entire second half and helping UNI limit the Wildcats to one offensive yard.
The effort earned him Missouri Valley Football Conference defensive player of the week honors.
“Yeah, it has been a long year, I’m not going to lie to you,” Kolarevic said. “I really didn’t know how much I was going to play in that game. I kind of turned my brain off, went in and played. My instincts just took over.
“I hadn’t played in a long time, and I really hadn’t practiced a whole lot. I just went in there, played and had a lot of fun.”
Kolarevic said it has been a grind to get back on to the field, one that wore on him mentally.
The Traverse City, Mich., native was in the midst of a monster freshman season last fall when he got hurt in the Panthers’ 42-28 win at South Dakota on Oct. 14.
Kolarevic had 65 tackles in UNI’s first six games and that still ranked fifth at season’s end for the Panthers.
But that was the last game Kolarevic would play. For weeks afterward, the 6-foot, 225-pound playmaker could be seen wheeling around with his right foot in a boot and elevated.
At first it was believed the injury would heal on its own, but eventually Kolarevic had surgery in April.
“I have some people that I’m really grateful to,” Kolarevic said. “I got with Dr. Coetzee (Dr. J. Chris Coetzee), he’s the foot doctor for the Minnesota Vikings. I got a lot of help from him so I’ve got to give him a shout-out.
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“And, honestly, being out for a year it was more mental than physical. It is kind of a grind to go into the training room every day and get yourself up, get through that pain so I’ve got to give a shout-out to Travis (UNI athletic trainer Stueve). He helped me out more than anyone. Mentally and physically, he got me through it.”
The return of Kolarevic adds depth to a young linebacker corps that is improving week by week.
Kolarevic was set to return for the Idaho State game before suffering a setback. Excited to get the pads on and be involved in practice rather than just watching, Kolarevic went hard on his first day back.
“I was excited. I was feeling good, a little sore, but not too bad,” he explained. “I went through a whole practice and I did too much. It was my fault, I took off and pulled my hammy a little and it took a week or two to rehab and get back.”
Kolarevic knew he was going to play at Weber State, but not how much.
“The first half I thought I’d get a couple of reps, a play or two,” Kolarevic said. “Then at halftime, they told me I was going to start and I knew it was kind of time, it was time to go.”
UNI coach Mark Farley is happy to have him back, but said there is a plan in place to limit how much work in practice Kolarevic will get physically.
“I thought it was nice to see him play,” Farley said. “It was nice to see the success he had. It was very good to see him play and perform the way he did, too, because the first time (back from injury) you always struggle a little bit getting back into the groove and he found his way very quickly.”
As far as practice time, Farley said, “I don’t think anything is wrong with him today. We just know if it is anything like when you first get into camp this is when you have to be careful with him this week in practice because he played a lot, probably more than we anticipated.”
Being able to jump in and play with a week of practice sounds surprising, but both Farley and Kolarevic said he was ready, moreso mentally, with the physical part close behind.
“I think the big thing was getting a lot of mental reps,” Kolarevic said. “That is what I’ve been doing the last year. In the spring I would stand behind the defense and watch mentally. I imagined myself making plays, imagined myself doing things to make sure I was there mentally, so when I got out there I would just go and do it.
“We are getting there (physically). It is not as bad as I thought it would be. I was definitely tired after the game, definitely sore. But I’ll be ready to go this weekend.”