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Tentman: Recapturing the dream

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Linebacker Solomon Tentman was told he'd probably never play football again. Twenty months later he's the starting middle linebacker for the Cincinnati Bearcats.

CINCINNATI - In the evolving era of modern sports medicine, treating knee injuries feels as ordinary as taking blood pressure. Players repeatedly tear an anterior cruciate ligament or sprain a medial collateral ligament. They return as if nothing happened.

The rehab and time frames are known quantities. Full recovery is expected. Standard practice.


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Then there's what happened to UC linebacker Solomon Tentman.

On a typical day and typical play during his freshman year of training camp the extraordinary occurred.

The Roger Bacon product lay on the ground after planting and twisting. His left knee suffered the equivalent of a bomb going off inside it.

Butch Jones said the knee injury was reported to him as "catastrophic."

Head athletic trainer Bob Mangine observed hundreds upon hundreds of knee injuries during his 35-plus years rehabbing athletes. After looking at Tentman's, he decided to use it in his teaching videos to show students how severe a knee injury can be.

"He tore three ligaments: ACL, LCL, MCL, partial PCL, lost part of his meniscus," Mangine said, rattling off the damage. "He pulled the ligament off the fibula."

Tentman didn't need to hear any of those facts, though. The doctors made the cold reality abundantly clear.

"They said I wasn't supposed to play again," he said.

Tentman was done. Finished. A bright football future fades to black before the first act.

There was only one problem with the devastating diagnosis; Tentman wasn't listening. A young man who so much defined himself by football refused to hear people telling him it would be stripped away.

"I knew I was going to play again," Tentman said. "There was a little worry in the back of my head but I didn't care about what they said because I know I've got the motive and the drive for it."

Twenty months later, Tentman runs on to the field during spring practice having earned the starting middle linebacker spot for the Cincinnati Bearcats.

Numerous adjectives were given to describe the ugly nature of this knee injury, but only one descriptor came to mind for teammate Maalik Bomar to quantify the recovery and resurgence: "It was a miracle."

'ONE OF THE HARDEST TIMES IN MY LIFE'

In the weeks leading up to Tentman's knee injury, the freshman turned heads as much as any of his classmates attempting to make an impression on the new coaching staff. He was the talk of the camp.

The starters were in place with JK Schaffer moving to middle linebacker and Maalik Bomar taking over on the edge, but new linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator John Jancek searched desperately for depth. He found what he was looking for in Tentman.

"He was in the mix for some playing time," Jancek said. "Unfortunately, he got hurt and that kind of put an end to that."

With that end came a new beginning for Tentman. A long, tumultuous trip against the odds buoyed by only a refusal to see his dream die. Staring down the barrel of Day One of the trip didn't follow the path of glorified toughness that would eventually serve as the backbone to his return.


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Not at all. Day One presented the daunting task of dealing odds stacked against him.

"It was depressing definitely," Tentman said. "That was probably one of the hardest times in my life. I eventually moved past it."

Tentman credits family, friends and the UC staff for helping turn his attention from reality to rehab.

"That was the only thing I needed at that time because everything else was just distraction," he said.

The most difficult part of a rehab of this severity owning a good chance it never reaches complete conclusion is not the early morning exercises or building muscle around the knee. The most difficult part is fighting the adversity.

"Not very many people are able to come back from that," Jones said. "Not only from the severity of the damage to the knee, but also the mental toughness, the mental conditioning that it takes to rehab yourself back to being football condition."

'NIGHT AND DAY'

Around two months into his rehab, Mangine said optimism replaced pessimism. Tentman's commitment produced progress and they no longer saw his career in jeopardy. By the time the 2011 season began Tentman suited up again.

He grinded through practices and attempted to regain the explosiveness that earned him a spot on The Cincinnati Enquirer's First Team and recognition as the GCL Defensive Player of the Year his senior season.

Players who suffer ACL tears can return to full speed in 9-12 months. Heck, former UC receiver Vidal Hazelton was cleared to play only three months after tearing his ACL in the 2010 season opener. When a knee is obliterated as Tentman's was, expecting to be anywhere near 100 percent in one year could be classified as rabidly optimistic. The fact he even touched the field at all blew away expectations.

Tentman only played in five games, managing three tackles. A limp was noticeable. Playing time wouldn't have been easy to come by stuck behind star JK Schaffer anyway, but the redshirt freshman wasn't capable to contribute.

"Last year I could feel a little frustration with that injury just getting back and getting the mode of things," he said.

The game changed this spring. With Schaffer's departure leaving a gaping hole at the epicenter of the defense, Tentman's mind and body cooperated to seize the opportunity. The limp subsided. The mental concern disappeared. Suddenly, he feels and looks like the Tentman of old.

"This spring is definitely key because I'm for the first time playing ball without worrying about it or anything," he said. "I am just moving full speed."

His ascension comes at the perfect time and as the pleasant surprise of the season for Jancek.

"His overall movement and his transitions, just his speed in general, is so much better this year than it was last year," the defensive coordinator said. "It's like night and day. If I showed you the cut-ups you wouldn't think it's almost the same person.

"The chances of him playing again weren't very good and the doctor's were right up front with that. Solomon has worked tremendously hard, he's got a great will. And he's got himself in position to be the starting linebacker right now."

Greg Blair, Clemente Casseus, Colin Lozier and Kevin Hyland all battle along with Tentman, but he's become the clear starter. His positive impression allowed a luxury and versatility for the defense. Instead of replicating the path Schaffer took and moving returning starter Bomar from the outside to the middle, Tentman's play allows UC to keep Bomar at the natural, familiar position for his senior season.

Bomar knows both and can move over if need be, but Tentman sets a comfortable position for all involved. Jancek, Jones and Tentman all agree he must improve his overall play-making to capitalize on his potential next season, so by no means should he be considered a finished product. The fact he's a product at all makes improving at linebacker look like a walk in the park.

Tentman didn't know devastation like what occurred to his knee was possible prior to the injury. Now, after 20 months of dealing the knowledge it very much is, he serves as the symbol of resiliency and toughness for his teammates.

Doctors told him his dream would likely be ripped away. There's only one thing left to do to prove them wrong: Live it.

"Thursday, Sept. 6, at night, ESPN, play in front of a sold out Nippert," he said, imagining the season opener against Pittsburgh with a wide smiling across his face. "(Football) is my love. This is the only thing I want to do."

Considering all Tentman put himself through, nobody can doubt that.

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