EVANSTON-When fifth-year senior Niko Mafuli broke a bone in his foot during Saturday's workouts, junior Brian Arnfelt was one of the first Northwestern teammates at his side to lend some encouraging words.
Been there, done that, thought Arnfelt.
Late last May, the 6-foot-5, 300-pound junior defensive tackle from Lake Elmo, Minn. thought he was staring at a lost season. During a workout, he broke the fifth metatarsal in his right foot.
Watching Mafuli push his way around practice on a scooter while wearing a surgical boot this week is an eerie reminder to Arnfelt of the long road he faced throughout the summer and a good part of the fall. And just like Mafuli is doing now, he learned how to turn a negative into a positive.
"Injuries are part of the game,'' he says. "You just have to roll with it and I looked at my injury as my opportunity to improve some other things and coach up the younger guys.''
Arnfelt played in all 13 games, making one start, in 2010 and registered 14 tackles. An Academic All-Big Ten selection, he finished the season on a strong note with 10 tackles in the last three games, including three in the TicketCity Bowl.
If he didn't start in 2011, he figured to be one of the first off the bench. But when he left for preseason camp in Kenosha this past summer, he was facing a long recovery. He had already used his redshirt as a true freshman.
"I wasn't playing, but I was going to make the best of the situation,'' he says. "In addition to working with the younger players, there were a lot of flexibility things and strength work I could be doing. There are still a lot of things you can do, not necessarily on the filed, that still correlate to football.''
During any down moments, Arnfelt knew he could always lean on his teammates, especially fellow defensive tackle Jack DiNardo.
"I'm really close with Jack; he's been real good through this whole process,'' Arnfelt says. "In times of adversity, you really learn who are your brothers on the team. Everyone has been phenomenal through the entire process.''
Injured players usually don't make road trips, so it became routine for several of those players along with some of the freshmen not on the travel roster to venture over to Arnfelt's house to watch the Northwestern game on TV.
"What that does is make you hungrier to get back out there,'' he says. "While we watched the game I would try to point some things out to the other players because you have to make the situation a positive. I wanted to help them any way I could.''
Arnfelt finally worked his way back to play against Michigan on Oct. 8.
"It was a neat experience coming back; you realize how much you appreciate the game,'' he says. "I relished the chance to get back to the practice field. You're out there at practice (as an injured player), but now you are finally realizing the experience on the field with your brothers. It's really kind of a moving thing.''
Arnfelt played against Penn State and Indiana, totaling four tackles, but found himself on the shelf against after reinjuring the same foot against the Hoosiers.
"Maybe I came back too early,'' he says.
He now claims he's ready for a New Year's Eve date with Texas A&M. Arnfelt is battling sophomore Will Hampton and redshirt freshman Chance Carter to pick up a majority of Mafuli's lost minutes.
"Because of the time away, you could say I may be fresher than the other players,'' he says. "It's been a difficult path to get cleared to play, but you never want to lose sight of that goal. There's a little bit of shaking off the rust, more from the mental side, but you eventually get that spark back and get back into the flow of things.
"I feel for Niko and I can't imagine being a senior and missing your last game. The next guy has to pick up the flag and we have to move forward. When you're taken away from football and can't participate, you realize how much you miss it. Now all I want to do is get this 62-year-old monkey (last Northwestern bowl victory) off our backs and show the seniors out the right way.''