Despite three injuries, QB Knipp still plugging away

Northern Colorado Bears quarterback Jacob Knipp runs in the first half of a game Sept. 16, 2017, in Boulder, Colo. Knipp and the Bears play Washington State at 2 p.m. Saturday at Martin Stadium.

He mingled with teammates, attended some of the meetings and mentored two of his fellow quarterbacks.

But in his heart, Jacob Knipp severed all ties with football. He had checked out.

Not once, not twice, but three times he had suffered season-ending injuries — fairly early in each season, and to the same area of his body. It was time to cut his losses. Live a different life.

Or so he thought.

A year later, Knipp said it’s not so easy to leave this game. He’s once again devoting body and soul to University of Northern Colorado football, a fact that undoubtedly has caught the attention of NFL scouts.

Now a sixth-year senior and a veteran of two major surgeries, Knipp will bring his talents to a Pac-12 venue at 2 p.m. Saturday when the Bears (0-1) of Greeley, Colo., challenge Washington State (1-0) in a nonconference game at Martin Stadium in Pullman (Pac-12 Network).

The strong-armed Knipp, who is 6-foot-4 and 213 pounds, is considered one of the most gifted quarterbacks in the Football Championship Subdivision, the lower tier of NCAA Division I football. But repeated injuries to his left, nonthrowing shoulder area have kept him from proving it.

Physically, the most devastating blow came in Game 2 of his sophomore season in 2017. Emotionally, the toughest stretch came last year, when a sack by a Sacramento State player in Game 3 fractured Knipp’s collarbone in the exact place where it had been broken in the sixth game of the previous season.

What made it more frustrating was a doctor — a different one from the previous year — was telling him surgery was necessary and should have been performed after the first fracture. That was news to Knipp.

As a team captain who had spent four-plus years in the UNC program, he made a point of remaining close to the program as the Bears struggled through a 2-8 season. But he also began preparing for a rupture with football.

“At that point, we’re kind of questioning everything,” he said by phone Wednesday. “For a long stretch last fall, I didn’t want to come back. I was done with the game. It had been stripped away from me for three years and I was just done putting my body through it.”

His father advised him to delay any final verdict and leave his options open. Knipp also sought advice from friends, relatives, his girlfriend.

Although he had been lightly recruited out of Arvada, Colo., he had gained 30 pounds since arriving at UNC and displayed a big upside during his one complete college season, in 2015, when he led the Bears to a 6-5 record and broke all the school’s freshman passing records.

But the first injury occurred the next season. In a game at Abilene Christian in Texas, on a play that drew a late-hit penalty, Knipp was leveled after releasing a pass, and the defender landed on him awkwardly.

He dislocated a shoulder and, after the team’s flight back to Colorado, he learned he also had broken a humerus and sustained tears in a labrum and a rotator cuff.

“The doctor said, ‘Your humerus is split in half, and the top half of your humerus is sitting in your chest,’” Knipp recalled. “So they had to go and do some surgery about three hours later — otherwise there would be some serious damage. It was a total reconstruction.”

Two years later, as Knipp mulled the possibility of leaving football, NFL scouts were among the people he consulted. In recent months, he’s been ranked as high as 16th among quarterback prospects for the 2020 draft.

“They just said they love what they see on tape, that I definitely have the tools for them,” Knipp said. “They just want to see me string a stretch of games together and stay healthy.”

Toward the end of the 2018 season, his bitterness began to subside and he decided to apply to the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility. To nobody’s surprise, he received one.

Even then, he wanted to ease back into football slowly, so he spent some time with the UNC baseball team, playing first and third base, before participating in the latter part of spring football drills. He said the mental challenges of baseball — the batter’s unfavorable odds in a given at-bat, for example — are analogous to those of football.

Northern Colorado is not expected to have an easy season. It was voted last among 13 teams in the preseason Big Sky polls. In the first of three consecutive road games to start the year, the team lost 35-18 last week at San Jose State as Knipp was 26-for-44 passing for 177 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.

But the Bears are a better team when Knipp’s on the field, and he said his reimmersion in football is wholehearted.

“I just realized, at the end of the day,” he said, “that 10 years from now I don’t want to be sitting around wishing I had given it one more go, knowing I had another opportunity. I’ve always wanted to go to the next level and I know I have the opportunity to do that. So I just told myself, regardless of what happens, I’m going to give it everything I’ve got.”

Dale Grummert may be contacted at daleg@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2290.

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