Jim Souhan: How do you replace Minnesota running back Ibrahim? You don’t.

By Jim Souhan

MINNEAPOLIS — "Next man up" has become an essential football phrase. As athletes have gotten bigger, stronger and faster, and injury protocols have become more evolved, every high-level football team enters every season knowing that it will have to avoid and survive a slew of injuries to win, or even to function.

"Next man up" has also become a ridiculous and insulting phrase. Especially in the context of Minnesota sports.

It presumes that the next man, or woman, can easily replace the injured player, and it encourages us to quickly forget the injured player, as if all athletes are cogs in a wheel.

Let's be realistic about the Gophers football team's loss of star running back Mohamed Ibrahim, who left Thursday's game with a season-ending injury to his left leg.

The Gophers should be able to run the ball effectively without him. Their massive and experienced offensive line, combined with the Gophers' customary running back depth, should allow the ground game to function.

But there is no Next Man Up who will replicate what Ibrahim did, and no hyper-macho phrasing should keep us from lamenting his injury.

He may have been the best back in college football. He returned for his senior season because, in his words, he felt he had unfinished business at Minnesota.

Ibrahim was both humble and exceptional. He was also as entertaining a player as the Gophers have had since Laurence Maroney, and he was a much better all-around player than Maroney, who relied on the occasional long sprint to pad his stats and burnish his reputation.

Ibrahim may have contended for the Heisman Trophy. While he should be able to recover and become a good NFL running back, he may never find himself in a situation such as the one that was just taken from him: Being the dominant figure on a promising team.

Had he stayed healthy, he may have broken Gophers records for most rushing yards in a career and in a season. His over-under on rushing yards per game might have realistically been set at 200.

Thursday, before the injury and facing the fourth-ranked team in the country, he carried 30 times for 163 yards and two touchdowns. Imagine what he would have done to less-talented defenses.

So before someone yells "Next man up," let's acknowledge that this is a sad moment. Minnesotans are accustomed to them. Particularly, Twins fans.

Tony Oliva would be in the Hall of Fame had a knee injury not wrecked his prime. Joe Mauer would be a certain Hall of Famer instead of a candidate worthy of analysis if injuries hadn't ruined his golden years.

In the middle of the 2010 season, Justin Morneau was performing at a much higher level than he had when winning the 2006 AL MVP award when he slid into second base in Toronto, took a glancing knee to the head and was never the same. Yes, he won a batting title in Colorado by becoming a line-drive hitter, but in 2010 he was becoming perhaps the best all-around hitter in the big leagues.

Francisco Liriano had Hall of Fame talent and may have paired with Johan Santana to produce a World Series title if he had remained healthy. Kirby Puckett had his career cut short, and now Byron Buxton's ability to dominate the sport has been continually depressed by his myriad injuries.

Gophers basketball has had its NCAA Tournament appearances damaged by untimely ailments, and the Vikings had a series of promising quarterbacks — Daunte Culpepper, Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford — suffer career-altering injuries.

Most sports injuries are the equivalent of a pause button. The ones that derail greatness should be mourned.

Ibrahim was becoming one of the state's best stories, a player whose production exceeded his raw ability, the rare back who could turn the routine act of carrying a football into a subcategory of art.

Next man up?

That phrase is an insult to the injured, and an unfair burden on the replacement.


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