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Wenger overcoming the odds to start for Florida

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Posted: Thursday, September 15, 2011 10:30 pm | Updated: 2:10 am, Fri Sep 16, 2011.

Dan Wenger doesn't remember much about Aug. 13, 2010, a day that changed his life.

It began like most August days of the previous four years: The then-fifth-year senior woke up, suited up for preseason camp and took the practice field at Notre Dame. His next memory was going to a hospital.

What happened in between is still fuzzy for the 6-foot-3, 294-pound offensive lineman.

"I don't recall the hit, don't recall anything that happened," Wenger said. "Just remember going to the hospital and getting some tests done and feeling some residual effects."

Wenger suffered a concussion - the first of his career - during team drills.

He was held out of practice before eventually returning to the Fighting Irish.

That is, until it happened again three and a half weeks later.

The Coral Springs native sustained two concussions, and now his future, both on and off the field, was shrouded in questions.

"Dan's involved in that decision, [and] Dan's family," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said at the time.

"We should be very cautious with anybody that's had two concussions in a very short period of time. Right now, we have to be extremely conservative when we have a young man that hasn't had game contact and has suffered two concussions."

Nearly a month later, Notre Dame's medical staff still hadn't cleared Wenger. He went to the University of Michigan to be evaluated by a specialist, seeking a clean bill of health.

No luck.

The following day, Kelly ruled Wenger out for the season.

"It was extremely tough," Wenger said. "It's one of those things where I've been working for this since I was a freshman in high school. ... It was heartbreaking. It was devastating to get that news. And I wasn't sure what I was going to do."

- - -

When Wenger went down with his first concussion, he became as much as four times more likely to sustain a second one.

The recovery time for concussions can vary from person to person, but according to Dr. Duane Dede, an expert in neuropsychology and mild traumatic brain injuries at UF, it typically takes about a week for symptoms to subside before an athlete can return to physical activity.

After multiple concussions, the recovery time can increase and athletes are more vulnerable to future concussions.

Following Wenger's second concussion, the effects lingered.

At first, there were constant headaches. Then, he had trouble sleeping.

"When I would go to sleep I would wake up with a headache, sleep nine, 10 hours thinking I was getting enough rest but I wasn't," Wenger said. "Then I'd be dragging all through the day and be exhausted."

Because of the second concussion, Wenger's sleep patterns were off. He saw a neurologist and was eventually provided medication, allowing him a full night's rest.

Beyond the residual effects, Wenger is now at risk for other, lasting repercussions down the road.

Studies such as the one carried out by UNC's Center for the Study of Retired Athletes have shown that multiple concussions can accelerate the decline of an athlete's cognitive functions and can increase the risk of developing dementia, and other psychiatric conditions, such as depression.

"When you go through a concussion the emotions run wild," Wenger said. "That's one thing: It's a roller-coaster ride. One day it's great, one day it's bad and you contemplate is it worth it? Is it not?"

- - -

After he was sidelined all of last season, Wenger had doubts he would ever play again.

Was it worth the risk of sustaining a third concussion? What impact would it have on his future beyond the game of football?

But Wenger eventually looked past the what-ifs.

"Once you get over that ... it's one of those things that this is instilled in me and it's instilled in me to keep fighting and I'm going to keep fighting."

So he did.

After applying for another season of eligibility with the NCAA, Wenger was granted a sixth year - but it wouldn't be at Notre Dame.

Kelly and the Irish medical staff would not allow Wenger to play.

"In good conscience, we just couldn't clear him," Kelly said in March. "I met with Dan and his family and let them know where we stood. But the young man still wants to play, and I'm not going to stand in the way of that."

Notre Dame gave Wenger his release papers and the former four-star prospect reached out to some familiar faces back in his home state.

Wenger called up his offensive line coach at Notre Dame, Frank Verducci, who was now in Gainesville as a part of Will Muschamp's inaugural staff. Wenger wanted to play for Verducci and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, who was Wenger's coach his first four years in South Bend, Ind.

Verducci passed Wenger's interest along to Weis and Muschamp, who were both on board with the idea - as long as Florida's medical staff could clear Wenger.

During his official visit to the school, Wenger underwent seven hours of tests - both medical and cognitive - to see if he had lingering effects from his concussions.

"Cognitive testing is important because it's the yardstick for what the brain has to do," said Dede, co-director of the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic at UF's Heal Science Center.

Wenger later had to drive back up to Gainesville to undergo further testing before he was finally cleared.

"If he couldn't play a down, he would have still helped us tremendously because he knows the offense better than the rest of them," Weis said. "Even if he couldn't physically hold up, his intangibles are through the roof."

- - -

For all the examinations Wenger underwent, the real test for the once-highly touted prospect came in August on the muggy Florida practice fields.

After taking a year off, Wenger and Florida's staff weren't sure how he would respond to taking hits on the field again.

But those uncertainties were quickly alleviated when two-a-days began.

"When we started hitting and put on pads and everything like that, that was the true test," Wenger said. "I was able to withstand workouts going through the summer with (strength and conditioning) coach [Mickey Marotti] and those guys. The real test was in summer camp. Passed that with flying colors."

Not only did Wenger pass, but he quickly earned himself a starting spot along the Gators' offensive line, where he played the first two games of the season at left guard.

Although he transferred from Notre Dame, Wenger quickly endeared himself to his fellow linemen, who have all said he has been instrumental in helping them adjust to Weis' offense and Verducci's blocking schemes.

"He's the wise man of the offensive line," right guard Jon Halapio said. "He knows every call there is. We felt really comfortable with him out there calling all the calls, and just running to the ball and being the leader out there."

With the help of Wenger, Florida's offensive line has not allowed a sack this season, making the Gators one of only 10 teams in the country to keep its quarterback on his feet.

Florida is also pounding the rock, rushing for more than 248 yards per game - second in the Southeastern Conference.

Now, with a fresh start, Wenger is putting what happened last fall behind him.

"It's one of those things that's been in the past," Wenger said. "It'll always be there, that memory of when it happened last year. But when it's out there on the field, it's strictly football."

Contact Tom Green at [email protected].

 

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