Sports

After battling injuries, Taiwan Deal is back and more patient than ever

Taiwan Deal dealt with ankle injuries that threatened to end his football career, but he's back on the field and running as well as he ever has.

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger

Left, right, left, right, left, right, thud, whistle,

“Carry by Taiwan Deal for two yards to the 50. Second and eight Wisconsin.”

Just like that, Taiwan Deal was back.

Deal battled through injuries and carved out a spot for himself in a crowded backfield as a freshman in 2015 and his heavy, bruising style made him an heir apparent to Corey Clement as Wisconsin’s feature back.

An ankle injury derailed Deal’s sophomore campaign, and although he was able to make it back onto the field for the end of the season he was unable to run with the power he displayed as a freshman. A pair of ankle surgeries were supposed to bring Deal back to full health, but further complications on his right ankle sidelined him for all of 2017.

As younger backs like Bradrick Shaw, Jonathan Taylor and Garrett Groshek joined the program and Deal’s absence stretched on, the Hyattsville, Maryland native’s future with the Badgers grew more clouded.

It’s easy for an athlete to lose motivation in the middle of a long recovery, when progress is slow and the finish line never seems to get any closer. But even in the hardest moments, Deal knew that he had more to give than what he had shown in his first season in Madison, and his desire to prove his abilities kept him focused throughout the months of rehab and recovery.

“The big thing about me is I'm a good football player and I'm going to play football,” Deal said. “That helped me stay focused and stay tuned into the bigger picture of finishing school, finishing out my career and doing it in the best way possible.”

Coming back from a serious injury can be especially challenging for elite athletes. Suddenly, working harder and doing more is as likely to lead to setbacks as it is to progress, and athletes who are used to having control over their performance can feel powerless.

“It's something that can make or break guys,” said Zander Neuville, who endured a long recovery of his own after tearing his ACL in the final game of 2017. When you're going through it you start thinking 'am I ever gonna be able to play like I was playing before or even just play at all.'”

Above all a successful recovery takes patience; the kind of patience that Deal has developed through hundreds of hours doing what he loves most: Fishing.

“Fishing kept me motivated,” Deal said. “When I get out on the water, I just feel like I can think so much better, it's just amazing, it's the way that I relax and see everything.”

The mindset of a successful fisherman is strikingly similar to what’s needed during long-term rehab; try to do too much in the down time and you won’t be ready for the moments that really matter. You can’t catch the fish before they’re ready to bite, and you can’t force the body to heal before it’s ready.

The same principle applies to being a running back, especially one carrying the ball behind an offensive line as talented at Wisconsin’s. Take off too early, or too quickly, and you’ll run into the defense before your blockers have had the time to open up the proper holes and lanes. Always blessed with plenty of power at 221 pounds, the senior’s time off has given him a greater appreciation for the patience required on the gridiron.

“All camp I just practiced patience in my run game style,” Deal said. “Sometimes you can’t be 100 miles per hour on a play, because you’ll run right past the hole.”

Deal’s program of patience is far from finished; after the team’s practice on Tuesday he continued to rue the moments when he could’ve waited longer for a hole to develop in Saturday’s game against New Mexico, and even the runs he could’ve had in that morning’s practice had he just given it another moment.

“One guy that really inspired me [to be more patient] is Ezekiel Elliott,” Deal said. “Just watching his film on Youtube to see how he's a really patient runner, and he trusts his landmark and he just runs through it every time.”

The senior’s patience is already paying dividends in what will likely be his final season with the Badgers. Deal is averaging a healthy 6.5 yards per carry through the first two games in relief of Taylor, and every single one of his runs in 2018 has gone for positive yardage.

Deal’s return is being felt beyond the box score; several teammates and coaches reiterated the positive impact that his return has had, both in the energy and hunger he’s brought to the locker room, and in the example he’s set as proof that a full recovery is possible, no matter how long it takes.

"It's definitely inspirational and it's exciting,” offensive lineman Michael Deiter said. “If anyone is having the greatest time it's got to be him, and that's why you see him just taking advantage of each carry, each rep because he knows that it's not always guaranteed, it can be taken away from you at any point in time.”

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