Back In Action

Michael Cobbins was manning the middle against Robert Morris one late-December night last year, when suddenly he crashed to the court, believing someone had gotten careless behind him. “It really felt like the cameraman had dropped a camera on me,” Cobbins said. “I turned around and looked back at him and he was looking at me and the film was still rolling, so I realized that wasn’t it.”

If not that, then what, exactly, was causing his foot to feel so… weird?

“I stood up and kept saying, ‘Something’s in my shoe. Something’s in my shoe,’” Cobbins said. “It felt like I was walking on my toes. At that point, I kind of knew.”

Knew that a camera crunching his foot would soon be wishful thinking.

Knew, instead, that it was worse. Far worse.

Knew that reality would be cruel once more.

“They took me off to the side and told me I needed to go back to the training room,” Cobbins said. “Right then I knew that I was probably going to be done.”

Done for the season, which had started amid so much hype and promise and had Oklahoma State at 12-1 by the end of that night’s game inside Gallagher-Iba Arena.

And soon, although the Cowboys wouldn’t fully comprehend it at the time, his team was done, too, having lost its one legitimate big man and a player whose underappreciated offerings provided the glue holding a talented squad together.

Cobbins suffered a ruptured Achilles that night, requiring season-ending surgery days later.

And the Cowboys would never be the same.

Now, with OSU looking much different, minus NBA players Marcus Smart and Markel Brown, and one-time starters-turned-transfers Kamari Murphy and Brian Williams, Cobbins’ return provides a shining light on the upcoming season.

“He’s looking great,” said fellow senior Le’Bryan Nash. “He looks like the old Cobbo. And he’s getting better every day he steps on the court. He’s a fifth-year senior and he’s going to be a big captain on our team. Everyone is looking to him and he’s responding so well. It doesn’t even look like he had an injury when he steps on the court.”

Oh, Cobbins had the injury. He’s had months of disappointment and rehab and pain and suffering, and even guilt to prove it.

“The first thing I thought about was my career,” Cobbins said. “And then there was the fear of letting my family down. Those were the initial thoughts that went through my mind.

“I know those things happen, but I just felt like I’m doing everything I can to make my parents proud of me. And that was one thing I knew they weren’t going to be too happy about. But I also knew they were there to support me. By the same token, I didn’t want them to have to go through that.”

Cobbins went through plenty.

And it didn’t help that the Achilles was his second go-round with the injury bug.

As a sophomore, Cobbins missed the first five games of the season with a foot injury, didn’t reclaim his starting job until late, then finished the year amid shoulder woes. Feeling good again to start his junior campaign, Cobbins looked good, too, when the Achilles snapped.

A challenging injury for anyone, let alone a big man, the recovery process was slow, with Cowboys strength and conditioning coach Jake Manzelmann overseeing the detailed process.

“I started with calf raises,” Cobbins said of the initial stage of his road back. “Then little jumps. Starting to jog. Then running. Pool work, doing jumps and cuts in the pool. Then onto the court and trying to work back into the rhythm of things.”

He likened it to baby steps.

“It definitely drove me crazy,” Cobbins said. “But we have a great trainer, J-Man, and he helped me through it and helped me see the all the little progress I was making. And I was actually able to stay sane through all of that.”

The injury wasn’t only devastating for Cobbins. It sideswiped the team, which recognized that their big man would be missed, yet didn’t fully grasp the full impact his absence would deliver.

When a man goes down, the instant evaluation focuses on points and rebounds lost. Yet Cobbins’ value extended well beyond those numbers – 4.5 points and 4.3 rebounds at the time – to his defensive presence as a shot blocker, to ability to free shooters with solid screens, to his leadership and intensity and hustle plays.

“I don’t think I knew of his impact emotionally?his impact leadership wise; his impact maturity wise… until he was gone,” said Cowboys coach Travis Ford. “Until he wasn’t playing. He brought a lot of intangible things to our basketball team, which he’s bringing again right now.

“A lot of people see the physical things – he’s 6-9, can block shots, has played a lot of minutes in the Big 12. But he also understands our system perfectly. He knew scouting reports. He knew everything.”

On the night of that Robert Morris game, the Cowboys were ranked No. 6 in the AP Top 25, and climbing.

Soon they were freefalling.

Cobbins’ injury happened on the brink of Big 12 play with the Cowboys due to play at Kansas State, where they lost, clearly missing their big man. Late January brought the beginning of a seven-game losing streak. It took a late spurt for OSU to get included in the NCAA Tournament, where it was ousted immediately by Gonzaga.

“It was really tough,” Cobbins said, “because there were moments where I knew I could have helped out. I knew all I could do was talk to them and try to help them and keep them together as a team.”

After the 12-1 start, the Cowboys finished 21-12, including an 8-10 record in the conference.

“When you look at our season, you wonder, ‘What happened to us?’” said Nash. “It was Cobbo. We missed his defensive presence. And we could always count on him to rebound for us and block shots and get his dunks and outhustle everybody. We missed that a lot, because we got smaller. “I think that hurt us a lot. We had to play really small and try to outhustle everybody. He was a big key to this team. I think he knew that. And our team last year knew that.

“We’ve got him back this year and hopefully we won’t have that problem again.”

Cobbins is back. And better.

The Cowboys brought him along slowly, refusing to rush his progress even as the recovery progressed smoothly. Fully cleared to resume all activities shortly after school started, Ford allowed himself only a peek in the beginning.

“His first individual workout, he was doing some things he’s never done,” Ford said. “Some things he hasn’t done in a long time. That was great to see. He just gave me a glimpse, I let him play a little one-on-one, and that’s all I need to see. It’s exciting to see him back, for him.”

For him, indeed.

Now Cobbins not only wants to be back, but he wants to be better than ever.

It starts with his senior status, as a captain who watched and observed and saw the game through a different prism a year ago. He feels an obligation to lead.

“I just feel like I’ve got to keep guys in line, keep guys motivated and teach the young guys, be an example to them in practice,” Cobbins said. “I’ve got to help everyone realize this is a blessing that we even have the chance to play the game.

“I know we can take it for granted, that’s another thing I’ve learned from this whole injury stuff.”

Cobbins, who also had surgery to clean up his balky shoulder during his time out last season, alas finds himself with one more chance at OSU.

“It’s something I need to take advantage of,” he said. “It’s another opportunity I’ve been given. I want to leave my mark here at Oklahoma State.”


Start My Subscription to GoPokes Magazine

GoPokes Top Stories