The last image many people have of Drew Ott is him standing at the podium, explaining why he wouldn’t be coming back to the Hawkeyes in 2016.
To Ott’s left was a perplexed Kirk Ferentz. He shared his frustration with the NCAA’s denial of Ott’s appeal for a medical hardship waiver, a process which took five months.
Wearing a white Iowa polo and jeans, Ott was clean-cut, without the mullet or thick beard he rocked during his college career. No longer was the Hawkeye defensive end sporting the cast he wore after dislocating his elbow in Week 2 of the 2015 season — the injury he played through until tearing his anterior cruciate ligament a few weeks later. He wasn’t wearing a knee brace, either.
Iowa media members asked Ott questions about his injury-riddled 2015 season and his uncertain future. People saw an optimistic Ott, who was confident that neither the late NCAA ruling nor his injuries would prevent him from being ready to start the 2016 season on an NFL roster.
What they didn’t see was the next nine months.
They didn’t see Ott when he watched the NFL draft with his then-girlfriend, now-fiancée and parents at their house in Trumbull, Neb. They didn’t see Ott when he had to set the record straight for people sending him congratulatory text messages after a report surfaced that he agreed to a free-agent contract with the Indianapolis Colts. They didn’t see Ott train and rehabilitate himself back to nearly 100 percent only to need two more unexpected surgeries.
Nine months after his drawn-out NCAA battle reached a conclusion, Ott is still working toward his NFL dream.
“It’s been slow progress,” Ott told Saturday Tradition. “That’s one thing I’ve learned is that it just takes a lot of time sometimes.”
Because of his relentless pursuit, the NFL is still calling. Ott just needs to be healthy enough to answer.
Until his senior year, injuries had never deterred Ott from football. He famously totaled his moped after a four-door Buick crashed into it, resulting in a hospital trip and dented shins.
Ott still played against Iowa State that week.
So when he dislocated his elbow in the second game of the 2015 campaign, it wasn’t season-ending. He had dislocated it before and he thought he could play through it, albeit in a more limited role.
The torn ACL a few weeks later, however, was a different story.
Not only did it end the All-B1G defensive end’s season, it — coupled with the dislocated elbow — prevented him from being able to work out at the NFL Scouting Combine and at Iowa’s pro day. He still showed up in Indianapolis and interviewed with front offices even though he was waiting on the NCAA’s ruling.
Ott actually got good news about his surgically repaired knee shortly before the NFL draft. The NFL Combine medical recheck gave his ACL a positive evaluation, which meant that he was on track to be ready for the start of the 2016 season.
The problem was that by that point, several NFL teams had already taken Ott off their boards completely. They elected not to wait on a player with multiple injuries who was a 50-50 shot to even be draft-eligible.
Not getting drafted wasn’t the end of the world. Some would argue that being an undrafted-free agent is better than being a seventh-round pick because a player can pick and choose the best situation. That could’ve been the case for Ott. He could’ve worked out for a couple different teams and made a 53-man roster, and the NCAA delay would’ve just been a bizarre speed-bump on his path to the NFL.
But that didn’t happen.
Ott’s ACL — the one that got a positive evaluation a month earlier — didn’t heal correctly. That meant in May, he needed arthroscopic knee surgery.
Ott would not be starting the 2016 season.
In the NFL, rosters are fluid. Injuries happen, which often results in guys getting “picked up off the street” to fill spots.
That was the new goal for Ott during the summer. But that process consisted of much more than sitting by the phone.
For a while, Ott lived in Iowa City with Iowa players Nathan Bazata, Brady Ross and Sean Welsh. Every day, Ott spent hours doing his rehab at Performance Therapies in Coralville, Iowa.
Ott moved back home to Trumbull in the fall and increased his training. His old Giltner High School football coach, Jeff Ashby, would open up the gym for him. Ott’s three-hour workouts consisted of lifting, footwork drills and practicing his defensive line technique.
He didn’t look like a guy who underwent two major surgeries in the previous year:
A Nebraska guy spotting for an Iowa guy with that much weight?..seems dangerous???? pic.twitter.com/BhBDiNutR5
— Jeff Ashby (@oleballcoach1) September 29, 2016
— Jeff Ashby (@oleballcoach1) October 26, 2016
— Jeff Ashby (@oleballcoach1) September 29, 2016
Ott’s agent, Neil Cornrich, kept getting calls about his client from NFL teams. On a weekly basis, he had teams inquiring about Ott’s health. Playoff contenders like the Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks checked in on Ott to see if he could pass a physical. They had depleted defensive lines that needed immediate help.
Ott’s elbow hadn’t been much of a concern for months. At that point, it was just a matter of getting his knee back to full strength.
In October, Ott was roughly two weeks away from being NFL-ready. Before he could get to that level, he had lingering pain checked out as a precaution. This time, it wasn’t an elbow or a knee issue.
It was something new. Of course. Ott found out that he had a hernia, which would require surgery in November.
This time, his goal of playing on an NFL team in 2016 really was gone.
“He wasn’t very happy,” Ashby said. “Not happy at all.”
It all caught up to Ott. The hernia was setback No. 4 — not even counting the dislocated elbow — on his road to the NFL.
“A nice little string of events,” Ott said sarcastically.
The latest setback forced Ott to reevaluate. He dialed it back a bit to let the hernia heal properly. Ott spent time building strength back up in his knee, which is still not quite at 100 percent.
His three-hour workouts have been cut down. He stays busy during the day by working on the family farm. When he doesn’t make the eight-mile trip to work out at Giltner, he lifts at his uncle’s gym. Because of his lower-body injuries, Ott said his upper body is as strong is as it’s ever been.
And while the timeline changed, the goal is still the same.
“I definitely haven’t lost any drive or any itch to play,” Ott said. “I think it’s greater than ever and I think my motivation is as high as ever.
“Just trying to get back out there and prove it.”
Ott’s setbacks haven’t changed some of his quirky ways. He confirmed that he still eats his raw eggs — shell and all — every once in a while. But while Ott enforced a television ban in the Iowa City basement he shared with a couple teammates, now, he’ll flip on college football on Saturdays and the NFL on Sundays.
Part of Ott’s rehab is watching football and breaking down what offenses are doing to the defensive lines. Ashby believes Ott’s attention to technique makes him the NFL-worthy player he is.
Last Sunday, Ott caught some of the NFC Divisional Round between the Cowboys and Packers. He watched enough to see Aaron Rodgers carve up the Dallas defense, which prompted a text to his former coach.
“Their defensive line needs help,” Ott told Ashby.
Had Ott been healthy, he could’ve been the one providing that help. If Ott can get healthy, he can still be the one providing that help.
Usually, there’s a universe separating the guy watching at home and the guy lining up in the NFL playoffs.
Now, a clean bill of health could be the only thing separating Ott from the NFL.
If and when that call comes, Ott will have to show he’s still the disruptive edge-rusher who terrorized B1G backfields. There’s no guarantee that he survives roster cuts. A challenging road still lies ahead.
But he’s been through worse.