Star-crossed runner

Amalie Benjamin

The original plan had Damien Anderson on defense, Chris Brown at fullback and Louis Ayeni at tailback.

But things don’t always work out as expected.

In 1998, Gary Barnett’s last year as head coach at Northwestern, he had a vision for his football team. He’d convert Anderson, a freshman tailback, and Brown, an incoming recruit, to other positions, making room for highly touted high school senior Ayeni, who would share running back duties with Kevin Lawrence.

Four years later, Anderson has earned All-America honors as a tailback, Brown transferred to Colorado to play under Barnett, and Lawrence will likely be the Wildcats’ starting running back in the fall.

And Ayeni?

He’s still on the squad, battling for playing time amid a sea of injuries that forced him to the sidelines for the last 18 months.

“It’s been an uphill battle since I’ve been here,” said Ayeni, who has two years of eligibility left. “They were always trying to get me on the field, and I’ve been getting these kind of freak injuries. It’s been hard to overcome that. But I keep pushing.

“I’ve got to keep on fighting. I’m not injury prone, it’s just freakish things that have happened.”

Ayeni joined the Cats in the fall of 1999 and led the team in kick return yards with 295. He began his career as the backup to Anderson at the running back spot after Barnett and his plan had both exited the program.

Current head coach Randy Walker expected to get production from Ayeni, especially after his impressive freshman campaign.

“I don’t hold great hopes for most freshmen,” Walker said. “I just wait and see where they fill in. He showed as a true freshman that he was going to contribute and play a lot. He stepped right up to the plate early. He showed a poise and a capability maybe beyond his years. I thought, ‘He’s got a chance to be someone pretty special.'”

And Walker wasn’t the only one who had high expectations for Ayeni. The running back thought he could be among the best – not only on the Cats, but in the Big Ten.

“I thought I’d come in, get a lot of carries right away, produce right away and eventually evolve into a starter,” Ayeni said. “I envisioned myself being an All-Big Ten player, possible All-American.

“I didn’t come here just to be an average player. I came here to be great.”

But Ayeni’s health got in the way. Since his freshman year, Ayeni has spent more time off the field then on it. He suffered an injury to his pelvic bone during spring practices his freshman year, which sidelined him for the first six games of the 2000 season.

Doctors prescribed nothing but rest to heal the pelvic bone injury.

Ayeni did make one big contribution in 2000 when he returned a kickoff 54 yards to set up a 45-yard Anderson touchdown run in the Cats’ 54-51 victory over Michigan.

After recovering to come back for the end of the season, he broke his leg in the Alamo Bowl against Nebraska. The injuries forced Ayeni to have four surgeries – during which doctors placed a titanium plate and four screws in his ankle – and medically redshirt the 2001 season.

“He has all the intangibles, does all the things that you want him to do, as a student-athlete and as a football player,” said Jeff Genyk, NU’s running backs coach for the last four years. “But he has got to be durable and reliable from a health standpoint to really contribute.”

For Ayeni, the rash of health problems has meant more than just time on the sidelines. It has been emotionally challenging as well.

“It’s been tough,” Ayeni said. “Whenever I go back home it’s always, ‘How are thing going? When is it going to be your turn?’ It’s more mentally draining than anything. You just do a lot of wondering, a lot of questioning.”

Because of his injuries, the Minnesota native probably won’t get many downs at the running back position. Walker said Ayeni – who spent some time at wideout in 1999 – will be used primarily as a slot receiver in the spread offense, but will also practice as a running back.

Since the spread requires a bigger, more physical slot receiver, the 198-pound Ayeni could make a significant contribution – if he stays healthy, of course.

“He’s a good kid and a hard worker,” Walker said. “Everybody feels very strongly about him as a person. Some guys just have that kind of career, they can’t seem to get outside the training room.”

During this year’s spring practice, Ayeni has suffered another injury, this time to his hamstring. He has not participated in contact drills.

So Ayeni has a simple goal for the 2002 season.

“Playing 12 games,” he said. “All 12 games, practicing everyday. I know if I do that, everything else will fall into place. I’ll be happy and I think our team will be good, too.”