ALBANY — He was supposed to return, triumphantly, for the University at Albany football team’s season opener. Lead the Great Danes to a spot in the FCS postseason with an All-American season. Perhaps challenge to win a national player of the year award.
Instead, Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks acknowledged Wednesday what’s been looming over the UAlbany program and himself for several weeks.
That left knee of his, first injured in last season’s finale, is still not right.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” Ibitokun-Hanks said, “but that’s life.”
Ibitokun-Hanks said that with a smile, his default facial expression. Seconds earlier, he’d danced off the field at Tom & Mary Casey Stadium. Minutes earlier, he’d enthusiastically participated in a contact drill with his teammates.
The night before, though, UAlbany head coach Greg Gattuso announced in a statement released through the school that Ibitokun-Hanks will miss the rest of the 2017 season and apply for a medical hardship waiver. Ibitokun-Hanks, who tore his left ACL at the end of the 2016 season and reinjured the knee during the preseason, only played one game this season for the Great Danes and is well within the NCAA’s parameters to receive an extra year of playing eligibility.
The chance to include a healthy Ibitokun-Hanks in the Great Danes’ plans for the 2018 and 2019 seasons, Gattuso said, was a factor in the decision to sit out the running back for the rest of the season.
“We’re building something here,” Gattuso said. “It’s hard to play without him, but it’s the right thing to do.”
“This,” Ibitokun-Hanks said, “was the best decision for me.”
But he tried to fight making it. Ibitokun-Hanks had expected to return at full health for the start of the 2017 season. In mid-August, though, the junior suffered a non-contact injury to the same knee. Ibitokun-Hanks missed UAlbany’s first two games, played in a win against Monmouth, and then missed the Great Danes’ next three games leading into this week’s bye.
Both Gattuso and Ibitokun-Hanks said Wednesday that it became apparent after the running back played against Monmouth that he might not play another game this season.
“I felt a lot [of pain] during the game, but I just didn’t want to let the guys know or anybody else know I was going through something,” Ibitokun-Hanks said. “I just wanted to finish out the game for them.”
Asked when after Ibitokun-Hanks played against Monmouth did he think Ibitokun-Hanks’ 2017 season was over, Gattuso didn’t hesitate.
“I’d say immediately,” Gattuso said.
The Great Danes, though, held out hope for a couple weeks that Ibitokun-Hanks would make a quick recovery. Gattuso seemed to suggest the decision to rule Ibitokun-Hanks out was made internally once the junior could not play in Week 5 against Elon. Playing later than that would have jeopardized Ibitokun-Hanks’ ability to obtain an extra year of playing eligibility if he reinjured himself again.
Gattuso said it was a relief to make the decision public after spending the season’s first several weeks answering lots of questions about Ibitokun-Hanks’ status.
“Internally, you know where he’s at, but you can’t put things out publicly,” Gattuso said. “One, because it’s not in the kid’s best interest and, two, it’s just hard to talk about it every day. I would have liked to have a little more closure prior to this, but, honestly, we had up until the Elon game to make a decision.”
Ibitokun-Hanks did return to practice last week, but with UAlbany’s scout team. That’s a role he said he expects to continue with for the rest of the season as he continues to strengthen his knee.
“It’s a day-by-day thing,” Ibitokun-Hanks said. “They [the coaches] just told me, you know, just do whatever you can, be a leader. I’m on the scout team for the most part, and I’m just doing whatever to get the defense ready for each week.”
“I give him credit,” Gattuso said. “He’s continuing to lead.”
Before tearing the ACL in his left knee in UAlbany’s final game last season, Ibitokun-Hanks rushed for 1,388 yards and 16 touchdowns. Those totals each ranked seventh in the country, as Ibitokun-Hanks helped the Great Danes to a 7-4 campaign.
UAlbany is 3-3 this season.
Despite his 2016 season ending in injury, Ibitokun-Hanks piled up preseason accolades leading into the 2017 season. Ibitokun-Hanks was one of three Great Danes to earn preseason All-CAA honors, one of two UAlbany players to be named a STATS FCS Preseason All-American and was named to multiple player-of-the-year watch lists.
Prior to his preseason setback, Ibitokun-Hanks said just matching last year’s rushing totals would not be enough in 2017.
“If I get 1,400 yards again, I’ll feel that was a failed year for me,” Ibitokun-Hanks said back in July. “I’m trying to get bigger, better, faster and stronger. I’m looking to have a better season than last year.”
But his knee didn’t cooperate.
Ibitokun-Hanks finishes his 2017 season with 63 rushing yards and one touchdown.
With an eye toward the Great Danes’ 2018 season, Ibitokun-Hanks reiterated Wednesday — using similar language to what he used back in July — that he expects to be the best version yet of himself when he returns, fully healthy, to the field.
“I’m looking to be bigger, better, faster and stronger,” Ibitokun-Hanks said.