"Talk about a freak athlete," former safety Bo McNally says. "Running into him was literally like running into a brick wall."
When the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Geoff Meinken arrived on The Farm in 2009, he sprinted 40 yards in a blistering 4.6 seconds. Different Stanford coaches fought for his services at their respective position groups. Meinken's rare combination of speed and size would make him one of the most versatile talents in program history: He lined up at six different positions during his time in uniform.
His promising career, though, was decimated by two separate knee injuries that relegated most of his action to the practice field. Stanford fans enjoyed Meinken's 12 career carries and 90 rushing yards, but they never came close to experiencing the full load of his rare talent. His former teammates, though, certainly haven't forgotten the pain that he inflicted.
"Sometimes, hitting a big guy hurts. You get a dead arm or a dead leg for a while," McNally said, remembering a 2009 collision with Meinken. "I ran up against him once when he was a freshman on scout team, and I got a dead body. It lasted all practice."
The Injuries: A Football Career Derailed
The first nauseating moment came on a Tuesday afternoon in September 2009, just three days after Stanford had suffered its first loss of the Andrew Luck era, a gut-wrenching 24-17 defeat at Wake Forest. With Matt Masifilo and Brian Bulcke both hurt, the multi-talented Meinken had shifted to defensive tackle for the Cardinal. That's when his first bad luck struck.
"My cleat got caught in the grass," he remembers. "My kneecap dropped behind my tibia."
That gruesome moment resulted in his first ACL tear. It wouldn't be the last. The second came about two and a half years later at San Francisco's Kezar Stadium. Meinken, then recovered from his initial injury, caught a pass from quarterback Brett Nottingham at Stanford's 2012 spring game. This time, his other foot became lodged in the turf, and ligaments in his second knee also ruptured.
In between his two injuries, Meinken recovered to play in 2010 and post a pair of spectacular highlight reel moments as one of the Cardinal's fullbacks in 2011. His rigid stiff-arm and subsequent 40-yard sprint on a humid September afternoon in Duke remains a signature moment from Stanford's Fiesta Bowl campaign, and his complete obliteration of Colorado's Douglas Rippy in that same year has also become an illustrating icon of the program's signature muscle in the trenches.
Meinken's 2012 injury came on the final day of his most productive college spring session, just as he was establishing himself as Stanford's short-yardage running back on the momentum of an impressive steak of third-and-short conversions. He was peaking as a football player at the time, so the timing of that second tear made it particularly devastating. Meinken's dejected slouch on the Kezar Stadium bench that afternoon spoke volumes.
"At any other school, I probably would have retired last year when I tore my second ACL," he says. "Not here, though, not at Stanford. It was impossible to just walk away from the great thing we have going here."
So Meinken restarted a grueling rehab regimen. The NCAA granted him a sixth year of eligibility for the 2014 season, as he worked with team physician Dr. Jason Dragoo and head trainer Steve Bartlinksi to fix his damaged body in time for 2013's winter workouts. Remarkably, he worked his way back to medical clearance in time. But despite the best efforts of Stanford's acclaimed medical staff, the intense load of that winter training brought back pain in both of his knees, and that hurt would not subside during spring practice or even through the spring hiatus.
"My quality of life decreased so much that it just wasn't worth it anymore," Meinken says. "I tried in spring, but I could only do about half of the practices. It was awful. Getting down in my three-point stance hurt. I didn't want to bike to class because my knees hurt so bad."
And so, on April 29, Meinken formally retired from the sport he loved.
"I just felt that I wasn't able to contribute at 100 percent, and I was taking reps away from guys who would have been able to do that," he explains. "The daily pain made it not worth it for me to keep doing that every day."
Injuries may have derailed the bruiser's promising football career, but they will not erase Meinken's special position in Stanford football's history. He was a player who embodied the Jim Harbaugh-David Shaw renaissance, and he enjoyed a prime vantage point while the Cardinal rose to glory.
Meinken's Stanford Experience: The Marked Difference in Leadership
Given the choice, Geoff Meinken says he'd pick his injury-plagued college career at Stanford over a healthy four years at any other college, and he's certain about that decision.
"I don't regret anything about my career. This is one of the most wonderful places on Earth," Meinken says. "I feel blessed to be part of this family. That's the one thing about Stanford football: It outlives all of us. There's no other family I'd rather be a part of than this one."
It's this line of speaking that initially endeared him to former Cardinal head coach Jim Harbaugh during the 2009 recruiting cycle. From the onset of his recruitment, Meinken showed himself to fit the definition of Harbaugh's quintessential "Stanford man." For his part, Meinken remembers Harbaugh's trademark enthusiasm unknown to mankind.
"The first thing [Harbaugh] did when he saw me, he felt my trap, squeezed my tricep," Meinken said. "I don't know how many times I heard the term 'fired up' from him early on."
"He wanted me to play fullback.
On my official visit he told me to get into a three-point stance. He
told me I looked like Owen Marecic, obviously in his crafty
Meinken, a native of Lynnwood, a Seattle suburb, reneged on a verbal commitment to Washington State to join Harbaugh's highly touted 2009 recruiting class.
Even in 2008, when Stanford had still not posted a winning season in over half a decade, Meinken says "there was a very serious difference between the football knowledge and intensity of the programs. Stanford's coaching was head and shoulders above [the Cougars'], and it was immediately apparent within five minutes of meeting the staff."
Meinken's fondness for the Harbaugh and Shaw leadership would only grow with each passing season on The Farm.
"340 days out of the year, it was a love-hate relationship [with Harbaugh]," he says. "But the 13 days he was on the sideline with you, there was no one you'd rather have there. He's a special guy, and Shaw's the same way. They really have your back. And that's something that's pretty unique, especially in football where the programs are so large. Sometimes, coaches will just pick 30 guys they don't care about. But that's not them."
This trust in his coaching staff helped Meinken learn the game from a plethora of different angles. It also influenced his positive reaction in response to the second devastating knee injury, in which he seized a unique leadership role on the sideline.
Though he was recruited as an outside linebacker, Meinken shifted to defensive tackle just days before his initial 2009 knee injury. During his first rehabilitation period, Harbaugh recommended that he learn the fullback playbook, and that's how Meinken cemented his ball-carrying opportunities behind the quarterback. He also proved himself to be a capable alternative at the wing blocker position immortalized by James McGillicuddy.
Meinken was ready to further flex his versatility muscles in 2012, when he was set to foray into the short-yardage running back role, but that never came to fruition because of the second ACL tear. Instead, it all came full circle when his final contribution to the program materialized. Meinken became a respected leader on the sideline, much like Harbaugh and Shaw, two of the men who recruited him.
"I wanted to be able to help our team from the sideline by showing younger players who get injuries that you can control your own rehab process," Meinken says. "You can still contribute to the team by setting an example, so that's what I tried to do."
The Stanford Experience
Now, Geoff Meinken is only two weeks away from his Stanford graduation. He's set to earn his diploma with a degree in history, and he has his eye on business school moving forward. Yoga, stationary biking, and swimming are all in his current or future plans as he tries to take pressure off of his wounded knees.
"I'm just trying to feel good and walk around pain free on a daily basis," he says. "I'm not there yet, but that's my goal right now."
Despite the residual pain and unpleasant injury-fueled memories, Meinken exudes an overwhelming positivity about his time at Stanford. After all the bad breaks that sunk his football career's ship, this upbeat attitude is impossible to ignore.
"If there's a single word I would use to describe my time here, it would be 'blessed.' I couldn't imagine my experience being like this," Meinken reflects. "I'll have relationships for the rest of my life with all of these amazing, intelligent, hard-working, hilarious people. I'm just blessed."
As part of a football program that sells itself to prospects as being a "40-year decision" instead of just a four year choice, Meinken presents a living example of how valuable a well-rounded college experience really is. The vast majority of college football players will not play professionally, but they'll all be confronted with the challenge of adapting to life without the game at some point.
Meinken has reached that juncture, and he insists that the special relationships he's formed at Stanford have more than overshadowed the uncontrollable negative occurrences of his career. That camaraderie began when he was a freshman, on the evening after his initial ACL tear, when the senior Bo McNally took him out to dinner to raise his spirits and help supply some much-needed perspective.
"I think we have the most amazing locker room in the country. The chemistry is incredible," Meinken says. "You can't believe how little friction there is. I can't remember any conflict in the past four years. Everyone gets it. Everyone gets what it means to be a part of Stanford."
Meinken gets it, too, as he ventures into his next chapter armed with a Cardinal connection that he expects to last a lifetime.
"I'm proud to say I walked away from a sport that will outlive us all," he says. "Most people don't know when to call it quits."
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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