By David Fong
ATHENS — A.J. Ouellette knew modern medicine would heal his broken foot in due time.
There was, however, no salve for his soul.
“It was rough,” the Covington High School graduate and Ohio University running back said of the foot injury that cost him all but three plays of last season, forcing him to take a medical redshirt. “Last year was terrible. Being forced to sit out and watch was a real struggle. Not having a season was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.”
Ouellette has more than made up for lost time this season, leading the team into a Dec. 22 Bahamas Bowl match-up against the University of Alabama-Birmingham, earning second-team All-Mid-American Conference honors and rushing for nearly 1,000 yards so far this year.
“I’m probably one of the only football players who was looking forward to fall camp this year,” Ouellette said of his return. “Most guys hate fall camp. I was probably the most excited I’ve ever been going into a fall camp. I was actually happy they moved fall camp up a week. I was just excited to be back.”
After leading the Bobcats in rushing as a freshman and sophomore, Ouellette was set to do the same again last season. All of that unraveled on the third play of the game in the season opener against Texas State, however, when he suffered a Lisfranc injury, completely tearing three ligaments in his foot.
Shortly after the injury, Ouellete had a plate and six screws surgically implanted in his foot, officially bringing an end to his season. Five months later, he would have a second surgery to remove all of that hardwaret. Not only would Ouellette miss his entire junior season, but he would miss spring football last fall as he slowly worked his way back into shape.
For a workout warrior and football fanatic like Ouellette, he may as well as have his foot amputated; it felt like his heart was being ripped out of his chest.
“I missed everything,” he said. “I even missed the practices and the workouts. I always like to say that I enjoy the process. I like watching film and scheming against a defense. I enjoy seeing how the week of practice leads up to the game. I missed all of that.”
To appreciate Ouellette’s devotion to even the most minute details involved in the game of football, one has to understand just how far he’s come from a high school player in Ohio’s smallest division. Despite setting nearly every rushing record in Covington history — and topping the 2,000-yard mark as both a junior and senior — every Division I college football program overlooked Ouellette, with none offering him a scholarship.
Undeterred, Ouellette — firmly believing he was good enough to play college football at the Division I level, despite what recruiters may have believed — walked on at Ohio University, figuring that he could earn a scholarship after a few years of proving to the coaching staff what he could do if given the chance.
Instead of a few years, it took a few weeks.
Before the training camp prior to his freshman season ended, Ohio University coach Frank Solich had put Ouellette on full scholarship. By the end of his freshman season, Ouellette has worked his way up from fifth-string running back to the Bobcats’ starter in the backfield, leading the team with 160 carries for 785 yards and seven touchdowns, along with 21 receptions for 133 yards and three touchdowns.
As a sophomore, Ouellette again led the team in rushing with 151 carries for 691 yards and six touchdowns. So versatile — and so unselfish — was Ouellette that when injuries left the Bobcats thin at middle linebacker midway through the season, he also filled in there, racking up four solo tackles.
All of that led up to last season, when Ouellette — who was named a team captain before the season started —suffered the devastating injury. Ouellette, already a weightroom legend in Athens for his grueling workouts, got back to training the second he was cleared by doctors and came into this fall, again a team captain, perhaps even stronger and faster than he was before the injury.
“I honestly don’t feel like I’ve missed anything,” he said. “I was wondering if it might take me some time to get the rust off, since I didn’t get to go through spring football, but from the very first snap, it felt like I didn’t miss a beat.”
In 12 games, Ouellette carried the ball 184 times for 980 yards and seven touchdowns and caught nine passes for 84 yards and a touchdown, good enough to earn All-MAC honors. He’ll need just 20 rushing yards against UAB in the Bahamas Bowl to become just the eighth player in Ohio University to rush for 1,000 or more yards in a single season.
“I’m happy to have this kind of season, coming off an injury,” Ouellette said. “You always write down goals you have — you want to rush for 1,000-yards, you want to be named all-conference you want to average 5 yards per carry. And honestly, I think our offensive line is more excited about me getting to 1,000 yards than I am. That’s a big credit to those guys.”
Closing out the season in the Bahamas — the Bobcats played their last two bowl games in Alabama — is an added bonus.
“As soon as we heard we were going to the Bahamas, everyone started going crazy,” Ouellette said. “Obviously you always want to win the MAC, but if you can’t, going to the Bahamas is pretty good, too. I know I’m really looking forward to it.”
Considering what Ouellette went through last year, finishing this season in paradise will be a welcome change of pace.
Contact David Fong at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @thefong