Jeremy Larkin always knew his playing career would end eventually. But nobody — not him, not his coaches, and certainly not any Northwestern fan — saw it ending as quickly as it did.
During the bye week of his sophomore season, Larkin abruptly retired from football after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis — the narrowing of the spinal canal in such a way that potentially harmful spinal injuries become more likely. Larkin began to feel a consistent numbness in his spine, often between plays, and after casually mentioning this abnormal feeling to coaches and players, Northwestern’s medical staff chose to further investigate.
The verdict came down, and the discovery could have ultimately saved Larkin’s life.
“There was a lot of frustration, anger and sadness,” Larkin told Inside NU. “I had known going into it what the end result might be given that we had gone and seen a ton of specialists and gotten a view of how much of a risk it would be for me to continue to play.”
Although he may have seen it coming, that didn’t make the life-changing news any easier for Larkin or the Northwestern football program as a whole.
“They couldn’t believe it,” Larkin said about his teammates. “Some didn’t believe it at all when I told them. Jared Thomas, John Moten, and Trae Williams — I went to their apartment, and they thought I was joking. A lot of them took it tough.”
For much of the team and fanbase as well, the news came out of nowhere. Larkin was the poster-child for a healthy Northwestern athlete at the time. He had never missed a game due to injury and was rarely, if ever, sidelined from practice.
Beyond the frustration and sadness felt by the program, his sudden departure left tons of pressing questions at the running back position. Justin Jackson had just graduated. Larkin had huge shoes to fill and had been getting the job done. He started the first three games of his sophomore season against Purdue, Duke and Akron — an especially difficult 1-2 stretch for Northwestern in which he was one of the only bright spots.
Larkin charted over 100 yards against both Purdue and Duke and scored five touchdowns in three games — the most by any Northwestern player since Tyrell Sutton in 2005. He resolved many of Northwestern’s offensive concerns, but after his retirement, those potential issues came back even stronger.
Larkin’s retirement was announced just days before Northwestern would take on Michigan, one of its toughest matchups of the season.
“It was frustrating because we were in the game, and I think we had only rushed for 40 yards,” Larkin said. “Granted Michigan was a really good team, but it was tough knowing that growing up in Ohio you don’t like Michigan very much. It hurt for me not being able to go run and play against the school I’ve been dreaming of playing against.”
Watching his teammates continue to play without being able to contribute was emotional for Larkin. Many of his playing-career dreams came up short thanks to factors beyond his control. But the ever-gregarious teammate was determined to find a way to continue to contribute.
Pat Fitzgerald and his coaching staff weren’t going to let Larkin’s retirement prevent him from having an impact on the Northwestern football program.
Fitz offered his former running back the chance to stay involved with the program as a student assistant, particularly as a helper with the running backs.
To Larkin, the decision was a no-brainer.
“I bounced back immediately,” he said. “I knew it was a different step. I had to decide that it’s for the best and go in there understanding my role, especially knowing what I wanted to do in life. I knew football would stop eventually. Having to stop it a little shorter was sad, but I think I bounced back because I was able to jump into coaching since I knew this was something that I wanted to do after football.”
As a coach, Larkin found his own way to contribute to the team while becoming a student of the game and seeing football in a completely new way. Many young and inexperienced players had to step up to fill the gap he left last season. Isaiah Bowser would soon fill the starting role, with assistance from Drake Anderson and Moten.
Larkin took pride in helping a group of nervous, young running backs that were trying to carry the weight of the offense on their shoulders. His role as a recent player offered a prospective much of the coaching staff couldn’t.
The former budding star continued to reassure his new charges over the course of what became a magical season: “‘They’re not that big of shoes for you to fill. Just like I had to fill Justin Jackson’s, you can fill mine. There’s nothing that you’re not able to do. There’s a reason why you’re here at this school. It’s because you can play the sport of football really well. You’re a really good running back.’”
“Just constantly encouraging them and keeping them level-headed and letting them know it’s not an impossible task. There’s nothing to fear. You’re here for a reason.”
“He brings a player’s perspective,” running back coach Lou Ayeni said. “He’s played in the same system. He was a young player like they were a few years ago. Just being a guy who’s been in the system, who was playing last year at this time and kind of knowing what the guys are thinking and what they’re seeing.”
While his contributions to the team as a whole are still undoubtedly appreciated, Larkin admits to having learned something of his own, seeing the game from a coach’s lens and developing a newfound appreciation for everybody involved with the program who is working towards success on Saturdays.
“I think I appreciate it more as a coach now,” Larkin said. “I think as a player, I always thought there was something more we could be doing, but being here and seeing here that the staff goes far beyond what a normal staff would do just allows me to have a greater appreciation for the guys upstairs.”
“It’s been fun teaching him what we do as coaches,” Ayeni followed up. “He had no idea, and he’s starting to figure that out. It’s like having a son in there and teaching him what it takes. To watch him coach and see him get a smile back and see him enjoy what he’s doing, it’s fun for me to have him around.”
Larkin’s deeper appreciation for the game has only solidified his future goals of becoming a coach. After earning his degree, the Ohio native hopes to become a graduate assistant at Northwestern for two years before becoming a position coach at a program and working toward developing a team of his own.
But now, as he said, Larkin hopes to become a student of the game and learn all the trades of coaching, from recruiting, to game planning, and even building interpersonal relationships with players. He has found the beauty in the coaching side of the game and the impact he thinks he can have on a player’s life.
“You get to recruit some kids and see them grow up through their 18-to-22-year-old lives and see them mature as young men,” he said. “That’s the part I’m most looking forward to.”
Outside of football, Larkin has been able to explore other hobbies and interests. He has embraced his retirement, picking up golfing in addition to starting a new podcast, Whistles (highly recommended) with Jake Saunders and Jared Thomas. The podcast discusses student-athlete life and the unique experiences that college athletes encounter.
Ultimately, Larkin has found a way to stay extremely involved in his passion for football while discovering new ones thanks to feeling less pressure from constant time on the gridiron.
“I feel a little bit better now that I’m not getting hit by 300 pounders. Life is a lot easier when you’re not getting hit.”
The end to Larkin’s career is not a wholly unique occurrence in the Northwestern program.
In the past year, Northwestern has seen four players retire due to medical reasons: Larkin in September 2018, superback Cam Green in February, defensive back Austin Hiller in April, and linebacker Chee Anyanwu in July. The aforementioned Moten even announced his retirement two days ago, citing his health as one of the things he was most pleased to be able to maintain.
Each retired player came to their decision for individual, personal reasons, and each has handled their situation differently, according to Larkin. Some come around the team every once in a while. Others have gone their own way and fully explored their interests outside of football.
Larkin, though, was the only member of the group to make his decision in the middle of a productive season, ripping him away from the game he loved and leaving him feeling unfinished. For those reasons, his devastating injury rocked both his own personal worldview and the program as a whole, at least at the time.
But as the team bounced back in 2018, Larkin was able to invest in himself and in his future, discovering his true passions and moving towards finding a way to better the game that has given him so much. And through it all, he has kept the same positive, upbeat mindset, both on the practice field and off of it.
If things continue to trend upwards, the early success that Larkin has found on the sidelines might just allow a once-promising running back to have the opportunity to produce a generation of players just like him.