Venric Mark's season is over.
Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald made it official during his weekly press conference Monday that Wildcats running back Mark won't be returning this season, as his ankle fracture has not improved.
"Venric will not be returning to participation this season," Fitzgerald said. "He's continuing to recover from an ankle fracture that he had against Wisconsin. We're disappointed for him, first and foremost, and obviously for the team. It's not that the injury's gotten worse, it's that it hasn't gotten any better. We'll look at hardship (waiver) and all that stuff at the end of the year. That's the way that those things work, and that'll be handled by our medical staff and compliance staff. Disappointed for him, but at the same time looking forward to him getting healthy and getting better."
This was to be Mark's senior season, one that saw him help lead Northwestern to new heights. But, much like the Northwestern season as a whole, his has been nothing short of a nightmare.
The explosive running back, who was an All-American selection last season as a return man, was hampered by an injury in the preseason, and he made just a short appearance in Northwestern's season-opening win vs. Cal. Then he didn't see the field again until Northwestern's much-hyped matchup with Ohio State.
Mark had a strong return vs. the Buckeyes, carrying the ball 17 times for 60 yards and catching four passes for an additional 43 yards. He also delivered a few punishing blows to Ohio State defenders in that game.
But, like everything for the Wildcats, it only got worse from there.
Mark suffered an ankle fracture in the first quarter of the next game at Wisconsin, and he's been out ever since. That injury, Fitzgerald clarified was different than the one that limited him in the early portion of the season.
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Fitzgerald has indicated throughout Mark's time away from the field that it is possible the running back could return next season via his seeking a hardship waiver from the NCAA. Given that he's appeared in just three games — with very early exits in two of them — it's a distinct possibility, as Fitzgerald said.
But more than hoping he's back in the fold for next season, the Cats head coach is more impressed with how the injured Mark has handled himself in this season of disappointment.
"We've been in constant communication from a stand point of where he's at, where things are going. You're just disappointed for him," Fitzgerald said. "My No. 1 concern is always for our young men and their health, safety and well being, and I'm really disappointed for him. He worked diligently to have a great year, and things have happened to him that have been out of his control. But what's been in his control has been his attitude, and he's been amazing. He's been just terrific on game day, he's been terrific every day at practice that he's out there encouraging guys and coaching them up. Really something special that I've seen from him that maybe a different guy wouldn't act that way. So I'm really proud of him."
And Fitzgerald isn't the only one, either. Teammates were quick to praise Mark's presence on the sideline while injured, saying that what could have been a time of sulking has instead turned into an opportunity to become more involved with his teammates.
"He's on the sideline. He's the guy that's most excited," junior offensive lineman Paul Jorgensen said. "He's not sitting it out, he's not feeling sorry for himself. He's on the sideline making sure everybody's up, everybody's ready to go, and that's been great and huge. He's been trying to get everybody ready. I know it's been a frustrating year for him, and I feel bad for him because I see him working hard to try and get back. But he's not sitting, he's not pouting, he's not feeling sorry for himself. He stays into the games, and he's there for everybody."
"He definitely gets us going when he's out there," junior wide receiver Christian Jones said. "He's never really quiet. Sometimes we really want him to be quiet, but he's never really. He's always talking, he's always up and he's always hyper. And you can hear him through any player, through anything that's going on, and that really helps to know that somebody — even though they're out or you never know when they're coming back — they're still positive about the team and trying to help the team out in any way possible."