ANN ARBOR — Football is full of symbols. The penalty flag. The goalposts.

For Mike Reinhold, it’s a stainless steel rod, 21 inches long. That’s what doctors inserted into his right leg two years ago, after a hit from a Minnesota lineman shattered his femur into three pieces, and left him twisted like a rag doll on the field.

For nearly a year, Reinhold and the rod shared the same flesh. He could press on his thigh and feel the object inside him. How strange. But then, all sorts of strange changes were taking place. He had remained in a Minneapolis hospital weeks after his Michigan teammates had flown home. Thanksgiving came and went, and he passed it in a hospital bed, flat on his back, eating lukewarm turkey that some alumni had brought him.

The leg had suffered a terrible break. But the break from the team was harder to take. As Reinhold said, “College football is like a big machine. When a cog is damaged, it’s replaced.”

And even as he lay in bed, he knew it was happening to him. His place had been taken.

He had never been hurt before. Never been too injured to play. Just as some young men are musicians, and some are scholars, he had always been a football player. And now he wasn’t.

It was as if someone had stolen his last name. They called him ‘Iron Leg’ No one expected to see Reinhold in a Michigan uniform again. Most would have been happy to see him off his crutches, which he had to use for eight months. “He was one player,” Bo Schembechler said,
“that I figured would never come back. No way. The injury was just too severe.”

The rod remained inside him. Iron Leg, they called him. It even brought a few laughs — like when Reinhold passed through the metal detector at an airport and the alarm went haywire. But more often, he could feel the piece rubbing against his hip bone, a reminder that he was still part-hardware, still not quite normal.

His weight had dropped from 225 to 185 in four weeks. He felt weak. One day, around Christmas of ’83, he hobbled into an empty weight room and tried a bench press. He had been lifting 330 pounds before the operation. He set the bar at “a joke” weight of 135. Eight repetitions and he was exhausted. “I was back to nothing,” he said.

All during this time, he was still living with other players, other healthy players, and when they would leave for practice, there was the loneliness you feel as a child when the door slams and you are suddenly alone in the house. Your inclination is to run out after your loved ones, to catch them before they leave you behind.

In a way, that’s what makes an injured player like Reinhold want to come back so desperately. “As a football player you feel special,” he said. “But when you’re out, not playing, you just feel like, I don’t know . . . normal. And alone.”

One night the following summer, Reinhold attended a wedding in his hometown of Muskegon — where he’d been a high school star — and the questions were all about when he’d return for U- M. They echoed inside. That night, at 3 a.m., he put on sweats and pushed himself through a grueling neighborhood run, “touching every mailbox and telephone pole along the way.”

From then on, if the trainers told him one mile, he ran three. If they told him a half-dozen weight lifts, it was a dozen. He did hours of work that he wasn’t supposed to, swimming, running, jumping rope, too eager to let common sense be heard. He did it alone, except for the 21 inches of cold steel inside him. And when he returned to the hospital, it took the doctors more than two hours to remove the implement. Reinhold had put himself through a private hell that would astound even Schembechler in an effort to get back.

When the doctors removed the rod, it was bent. Feeling a sense of belonging Reinhold is back now — as a middle guard, instead of a linebacker — on a Michigan defense that is the finest in the nation. This weekend, he returns to the haunted house in Minneapolis (the Metrodome) where the injury took place.

“It’d be lying to say I’m not a little nervous,” he admitted. “I went through hell up there.”

What brings college players like Reinhold back? Mostly, it’s the sense of belonging. Of feeling special. And in that way, they are no different than most of us at college age. They cling to the team as others cling to their friends, their fraternity brothers, their bands, their student government. Being injured is like a child being forced to watch a family picnic through a window.

“The whole time I was hurt, I just kept visualizing coming through the tunnel with the other guys,” Reinhold said. “When I finally got to do it again, it was like coming home.”

He still has the rod from his leg. He says he may make something out of it. No need. The curve in the object is testament enough to his will.

The steel bent. He didn’t.

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