Austin Wentworth’s NFL career may be over, and suddenly so, but the rest of his life is only beginning.
Fresno State’s two-time all-conference lineman, the guy who protected Derek Carr’s blindside, just turned 25.
Time for a different meaning of first-and-goal.
“If you look at it, I went through this at the perfect time because I’m young and in peak physical condition,” Wentworth says over the phone from Roseville, one town over from his hometown of Rocklin, near Sacramento.
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“I have a lot of things on my side. Really, I’m extremely lucky.”
Wentworth once scored an unlikely touchdown for the Bulldogs on a hook-and-lateral, but no trick play could have prepared him for what happened March 11.
It was about noon when Wentworth and his fiancée, Kohl, returned home after a meeting with the planner of their April 2016 wedding, where they talked about DJs and catering. In a few days they would be back in Minnesota so that Austin could resume his career with the Vikings.
Then everything changed.
“I started feeling a numbness in my legs,” Wentworth says. “It was weird. My first thought was that maybe I hadn’t eaten enough, so I went into the kitchen. But it was more than that. I knew something wasn’t right.”
The tingling kept getting worse and Wentworth urgently told his fiancée to call the hospital. He could barely walk and had to lean on Kohl’s shoulder just to make it to the driveway. By the time they arrived at the hospital, five minutes away, he needed a wheelchair.
It took four hours in the emergency room and another three worth of tests for doctors to determine what was going on. A CAT scan revealed 60% to 70% blockages in the femoral arteries of both legs. Emergency surgery was required.
Two surgeons, one operating on each leg, took 31/2 hours to perform what is called a double fasciotomy. Incisions were made from knee to ankle to relieve pressure on the swelled muscles.
Considering Wentworth could have needed one or both legs amputated or undergone open-heart surgery, the outcome was actually pretty favorable.
Wentworth’s right leg, save for the nasty scar, is fine. But in the left one, some of the muscle around the shin died when the tissue clots that caused the blockage constricted blood flow. It won’t be fine. Ever.
That particular muscle, the tibialis anterior, controls the raising and lowering of the toe. It also serves to stabilize the ankle during footstrike and push off.
Now imagine an NFL lineman reacting to the snap and dropping back on pass protection. Impossible without a properly functioning tibialis anterior.
“My vascular surgeon told me I’d never play football again, but that wasn’t the worst news considering what could’ve happened,” Wentworth says.
“He also told me that if either of those clots in my hip had gone up instead of down I would’ve been dead before my fiancée picked up the phone. So I can either be upset about my leg or happy that I’m alive. Think I’ll pick the latter.”
Wentworth spent a week in intensive care, undergoing a total of four surgeries, and another week in rehab. Upon his release from the hospital, one of the get-well gifts he received was a poster of himself during a Fresno State game signed by all the current Bulldogs players and coaches.
“That really meant a lot,” he says.
Six weeks since his release Wentworth is able to walk on his own, and every day the limp gets a little less noticeable. For the rest of his life he will wear a brace on his left ankle to compensate for the missing muscle.
Wentworth says doctors are still unsure what caused his condition, only that it is extremely rare, and especially so for someone young and healthy. He says never once had he experienced similar symptoms.
“Absolutely nothing gave me any indication — nothing,” he says. “A day before this happened I was squatting 500 pounds, doing NFL lineman workouts and feeling great about the kind of shape I was in. Then it all completely flipped.”
An undrafted free agent, Wentworth made the Vikings’ 53-man roster out of training camp and appeared in seven games last season. He played on special teams and as the extra tight end on goal line and short yardage.
Until the events of March 11, the 6-foot-4, 315-pounder expected to compete for the Vikings’ starting left guard job in training camp.
Instead, Wentworth was waived by the Vikings last week and moved to the team’s reserve/non-football list.
“My career is over, but I’m trying to look at it in a positive light,” he says. “I don’t think I ever had more fun playing football than I did last year. Everything about my experience with the Vikings was top-notch and classy.
“I’m thankful just to have had the chance to play one season in the NFL. Not too many guys can say that. It’s an experience I’ll always have that no one can take away.”
Wentworth isn’t sure what he will do next and plans to take the next eight months or so to heal up and decide. He has his degree in business administration and may pursue that avenue. Or he may decide to get involved in coaching.
“There’s a lot of question marks right now, but the good thing is all my options are open,” he says.
No better way to start a new beginning.