When then-redshirt junior defensive tackle Tracy Sprinkle was carted off the field in the first game of the 2016 season, his career was in jeopardy.
He had ruptured the patellar tendon in his right knee.
Defensive line coach Larry Johnson believed the worst-case scenario had taken place.
“I have to be honest with you, I thought that his career was going to end,” Johnson said. “That was a serious injury. Nearly 50 percent of people come back from that injury, or less than that. So it was 50-50 that he was going to make it.”
A little under a year later, Sprinkle is preparing to enter his redshirt senior year as a possible starter on the defensive line, taking reps at nose tackle and was named one of nine captains for the team.
Coach Urban Meyer made sure to note that the captaincy is based not only on the talent he brings to the table, but the leadership he demonstrated even while recovering from his season-ending injury.
“That’s how much he means to this team,” Meyer said. “The amount of respect he has earned over the last couple years. You know, he worked so hard. You see an injury, that’s awful. It’s just great to have him back.”
For Sprinkle, it has been a long journey to reach a starting role and leadership position with the Buckeyes.
The fifth-year senior began his Scarlet and Gray career struggling to find consistency on the field and had issues off the field. After redshirting his first year in 2013, he was dismissed from the team after an arrest in July 2014 on a number of charges, including possession of drugs and rioting. However, after only a month, he returned to the roster and occupied a spot on the scout team.
But Sprinkle did not let the dismissal and eventual assignment to the scout team dissuade him from pursuing his career at Ohio State. He kept putting in the time, both during and after practice, to do all he could to climb up to a starting role.
And finally in 2016, the hard work paid off as he was named one of the starters on the defensive line. His path from practice-squad member to starter on the line is a part of a message he preaches to all players whose path to the starting line seems just as distant.
“I first came here just struggling, started off on the scout team, so some guys on the scout team and I would let them know there’s still hope that you could still play,” Sprinkle said. “Sometimes it’s hard at Ohio State being that top guy, so we just helping guys out with the things that I’ve been through, letting them know that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Then, just 14 snaps into his first game as the starting nose tackle, Sprinkle exited the game, and didn’t set foot on the field again for the remainder of the season.
Sprinkle said he felt demoralized at the time of the injury. The recovery elicited doubt in not only his belief in his ability to return, but also his overall mentality and his faith.
But through all the obstacles thrown in his way, he remained strong, and said the injury helped make him stronger.
“I was kind of against the odds the whole time,” Sprinkle said. “My faith was challenged if I could believe in myself and believe in a higher power, and I made sure that (I) grew throughout the process. So my faith got really stronger throughout the process.”
Though the injury took Sprinkle’s physical presence off the defensive line during games, he remained there as a guiding hand to many of the younger players. He said he was always there to instruct the younger players, and to also serve as a source of inspiration for those who might question whether they would ever be able to play for the team.
“Last year, I was already taking a leadership role on the defensive line,” Sprinkle said. “And when I went down, I made sure I still kept to that. I just didn’t want to get away from the guys, so I tried to do everything I can without playing still to help those guys out.”
Sprinkle worked during practices to help his teammates improve on the field, but put in just as much work outside of practice to return himself to full health. He worked with his physical therapist day in and day out to get back to the field, let alone the competition for the starting spot.
And considering the extent of the injury, the coaching staff said it is remarkable that he has made it all the way back.
“I’ve never seen a guy work as hard in rehab to get back to where he is right now. He shouldn’t be playing, but yet he worked so hard to get here, and you’ve got to respect it,” Johnson said. “You see him walking around and you’re like, ‘Wow. A year ago he was out of it.’”
Sprinkle said he is honored to be named a captain for his final season at Ohio State.
“I don’t want to say I was aware of it, but I mean, you kind of just feel it around the locker room,” Sprinkle said. “I have a very good impact on the young guys, and the older guys. So, I feel like that room is just great. From all the things that I’ve been through to be considered a leader of the team now, it’s a humbling experience.”