Season of renewal

After an injury robbed him of a promising 2005, Jeff Holzbauer is down to his final spring.

MADISON — A year ago, Jeff Holzbauer was enjoying a fantastic spring practice season. He and fellow receiver Jarvis Minton had been revelations for the University of Wisconsin football program, giving the team every reason to like its depth behind veterans Brandon Williams, Jonathan Orr and Brandon White heading into the 2005 season.

Moving through summer workouts and toward fall training camp, Holzbauer, along with Minton and Marcus Randle El, had a legitimate opportunity to become the Badgers' No. 4 receiver.

Then, three days before the start of camp, he suffered a serious injury in a freak waterskiing accident. The injury befuddled his doctors and stole a promising junior season right out from under him.

"I'd been waterskiing since I've been about four," Holzbauer said. "Just a normal slalom deep-water start, tried to get up too quick and just heard a pop in my leg."

That pop was the ripping of Holzbauer's hamstrings right away from the bone. The three muscles that make up the hamstrings connect via tendons to the ischial tuberosity, the bottom of the pelvis just below the hip. Holzbauer completely tore the tendons of one leg off that bone, and partially tore his hamstring down the middle his leg.

"So as soon as I went to go reach for my hamstring it wasn't there because it had rolled up and it was at the top of my knee," Holzbauer said.

"It wasn't too exciting. Pretty painful."

The description of the injury — the realization that a large muscle group had essentially migrated down his leg — sounds excruciating. This injury, though, would keep hitting Holzbauer from all angles.

A walk-on since arriving at UW from Germantown (Wis.) High School, Holzbauer, who will be a fifth-year senior in the fall, soon learned that if not for the injury, he would have gone on scholarship.

"(Wide receivers coach Henry Mason) told me that I was going to go on scholarship but because of the injury I didn't get to," Holzbauer said. "That was very disconcerting to hear that conversation. But hopefully I'll come back and do what I did last spring and hopefully try and earn one again."

Then there was the question of recovery — a tricky issue since none of the doctors around him had any experience with his particular injury.

"I guess it only happens in water sports too, is what I've been told," Holzbauer said. "You need extra force from the water and the boat bringing you out of the water."

Normally, Dr. Ben Graf performs surgeries for the UW football team, but he had never performed the type of reconstruction that Holzbauer required. Nor had the ligament specialist at the UW Hospital in Madison.

"It was a little frightening going in not knowing what everything was going to be like," Holzbauer said.

"So they had no idea what they were doing," Holzbauer said. "They actually did research over in Sweden to find out what they were going to do in rehab."

Eventually Holzbauer had surgery. Using three "staples", the surgeon nailed Holzbauer's hamstrings back to the bone, then put a clamp around the tendons to facilitate the healing process.

"I'm going to have those nails there forever," Holzbauer said. "They don't go away."

"At first they thought I was going to have my leg up in a sling and tucked back behind like you are doing a quad stretch for like five months," he said. "… Then the way that they did the surgery by putting the nails in there, they let me keep my leg straight, which was a big help. But still wasn't able to do too much."

For close to five months Holzbauer simply rested, allowing the tendons and muscles to heal in his injured leg. While the Badgers practiced, he took part in upper-body weight lifting sessions with strength and conditioning assistant Ben Herbert. In late December, while in Orlando, Fla., with UW prior to the Capital One Bowl, he began light running and squatting exercises.

"Finally by late February I got to do pretty much everything again," he said

"My flexibility isn't quite all there," Holzbauer added. "I can tell if I'm really in a full-out sprint, my left leg doesn't quite extend as far and is kind of slowing me up right now. But hopefully in another three months I expect that it should be back to normal.

"By the time summer ball starts again I should be 100 percent, ready to go."

Holzbauer is right back in the thick of things this spring, competing for playing time primarily with Paul Hubbard, Minton, Randle El and Swan. Holzbauer is the only senior in the group.

"I came here obviously for school, but also wanted to play football really bad too," he said. "So I definitely need to try everything possible to get back out there. Still have a bunch of rehab left to go, have the flexibility left. So I'm doing everything possible that I can to get back out there and make a difference."

Holzbauer has looked good so far this spring. He has always had good hands and a knack for route running, with enough athletic ability to get some separation from defensive backs. With 10 practices left this spring, he hopes to work his way back to the level he performed at a year ago, when he was regularly making plays all over the field.

"It was hard to go to meetings and everything and listen to other people knowing that you could be out there too," he said, reflecting on last season. "… Game times were definitely tough. I traveled two years ago with the team, and not being able to travel this year and just watching the game from home again was pretty tough to do."

Holzbauer takes some solace in the fact that he added eight pounds of muscle to his upper body last fall, when he was resigned to upper-body weight lifting. He added 20 pounds to his bench press and 15 to his military press.

"If there is anything beneficial out of what happened that would be it," he said.

Holzbauer feels that with another good spring he still has a chance to earn a scholarship in time for his final year at UW.

"Working on it," he said with a smile. "It would be nice."

Just expect his summer recreational plans to be a little different this time around.

"No skiing for me for a while," Holzbauer said.

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