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Resilience and experience: TJ Green returns for a sixth season

After an injury derailed what was his best chance to be the starting quarterback, the signal caller leaned on his family to get through the recovery process.

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When quarterback TJ Green went down in last year’s season opener at Stanford, he didn’t realize how bad his injury was. His body was in shock, and hobbling off the field, he assumed it was just a bad ankle sprain. Then he saw other people’s reactions and got the news he would have to undergo surgery.

“When I saw my family all come into the room at the hospital, it just made my heart drop,” Green said. “Seeing my mom’s reaction, my sister’s reaction, it was painful to see. I wasn’t in a lot of pain from the injury, but I knew it was bad. And when they came in, they were just heartbroken for me, and I could see it.”

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At the peak of his career

Soon after returning from Palo Alto, the team announced Green would be out for the year, and the fifth-year senior’s season came to a close just as quickly as it began. Luckily for him, January brought better news when he announced on Twitter that he had received a medical redshirt and would return for a sixth season. After sitting on the sidelines and watching the team cycle through quarterbacks in what turned out to be a dismal 2019 fall, Green would have another chance at a season.

In the couple of series he played at Stanford, Green went 6-for-10, passing for 62 yards and giving a dormant NU offense a spark before sustaining the injury in the red zone.

“I had more to offer, I felt like I got an opportunity those 14 plays I had, or whatever it was,” he said. “I felt like I played well, and that I could do more. So I wanted to, again, prove to myself that I could come back from this injury and make an impact on the team.”

Green is no stranger to quarterback injuries. Just the year before, it was uncertain whether senior Clayton Thorson would be available at the beginning of the season after he tore his ACL just eight months prior in the Music City Bowl. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald was tight lipped throughout the offseason as to who would be the starter, and though Thorson trotted out onto the field at Purdue to take the first snaps, he was not fully healed. Team doctors put him on a snap count, and it was Green who saw plenty of time with the ones in practice and in games.

He ended up seeing action in nine games, finishing the season with 20 completions for 169 yards and one rushing touchdown. The score, which came in the team’s win at Purdue, is what Green describes as a culmination of everything he has worked for with Northwestern football.

Originally a walk-on, Green joined the team in 2015 after getting just one offer out of high school from North Dakota State. For him, Big Ten football had always been the goal. His father Trent played at Indiana University before enjoying a 15-year career in the NFL, so TJ grew up a huge fan of the conference. At Northwestern, he could play football and attend a school of high academic caliber as well.

The road to recovery

Now with TJ being the one on the field, his family remains a big part of his football career. Trent also struggled with injuries. In 1999, he suffered a season-ending knee injury in a preseason game with Washington and then had two severe concussions later in his career. TJ said that experience has allowed his dad to provide advice and reassurance throughout the recovery process – he warned him there would be days where he felt great, but also days where he wanted to give up.

“I broke down a couple times,” Green said. “It happens. It’s a really tough thing to go through recovering from something like this. Thankfully, it was around people that I loved… [my dad] was there to help me through that process and talk me through it. He’s always been in my corner and had my back. And he knows how hard I’ve worked to get a scholarship and then through this whole rehab process.”

Not only has his father Trent been a big part of his recovery, but Green’s brother Derek has helped as well by training with him during the early part of the pandemic. The three of them, all quarterbacks, practiced in a park behind their home in Kansas City so they could continue to run drills even when all the public fields were closed. Being home and training together again meant the two brothers got to do again what they do best: compete.

“We compete in everything we do. It was few and far between when I would get the upper hand on anything, but when I did, TJ didn’t enjoy it. And I never enjoyed listening to him either. So it just really forced us both to always be on our A-game,” said Derek, who plays at SMU.

Derek cited his brother’s determination as one of his biggest strengths. In high school, their father told him to learn from his older brother’s work ethic, and now after watching him recover from a grueling injury, Derek has seen first-hand how hard TJ has worked to get back to full health.

When Northwestern sent students home in March, Green was nearing the end of his recovery but wasn’t finished. Without his trainers or teammates, he had to finish the rehabilitation process by himself — an experience that taught him about his ability to bounce back and be resilient. Because this was his first real injury, and his first time away from football, he had to draw upon himself and his own mental toughness to push forward. After almost five years on the team, Green has learned the importance of the grind: he shows up everyday to work hard, and as a backup, it is this perseverance that has earned him the respect of his teammates and solidified him as a leader.

Mike Bajakian, NU’s new offensive coordinator, said he has enjoyed watching him overcome his injury and found his journey inspiring, both to the other quarterbacks and the team as a whole.

“As a veteran and as someone who has been around football all his life, he’s a guy that a lot of his teammates, not just the quarterbacks, look to for leadership,” he said. “That’s not easy, it’s not easy when you’re taking a backseat because of an injury. His presence is outstanding among all of his teammates. They respect the heck out of him for how he has attacked every challenge he’s faced.”

“TJ is an awesome asset for me, for everyone on this team, just his experience,” said fellow quarterback Andrew Marty. “He is a real honest guy. So coming off during plays, we’ll always be communicating with the quarterbacks, but in particular, I really trust TJ with what he’s seeing.”

Part of this ability to bounce back comes from Green’s experience as a backup watching Thorson recover from his own serious injury. The two have talked numerous times since last fall about managing injury and the mindset needed to recover. After Thorson tore his ACL that winter, he made it back in time to play his senior year, so Green drew from that experience and tried to replicate it as best he could.

Back for another round

Now that Green is back on the field after a challenging and unpredictable offseason, he faces another obstacle: a crowded quarterback room. Peyton Ramsey is the undisputed starter, according to the depth chart, while Marty and Hunter Johnson are both listed under the second team.

“The job that TJ’s done to come back, if I was able to list four quarterbacks, he would be in that group, too,” Fitzgerald said Monday.

Green will have to continue to be resilient this season. With a new offense, he will rely on his experience and his instincts.

Through it all, Green is taking full advantage of his education at Northwestern. After graduating in four years with a bachelors in economics, he has now completed a masters in Management Studies through Kellogg and is currently working on a masters in Data Science through the School of Professional Studies.

Since the program does not end until fall 2021, and the NCAA granted eligibility waivers for fall-sport athletes this year, the question remains: will Green return for a seventh year? Marty certainly hopes so.

“TJ is one of my best friends on the team,” he said. “We always joke a ton about how long he’s been here for. Basically, he’s like 23 or 24, so he’s an old man.”

Green wouldn’t commit to it but said it’s an option depending on the status of his foot and how the 2020 season plays out.

“I chose to come back to Northwestern because of the culture,” he said. “Guys that I know from my freshman year that were seniors, I still talk to some of those guys. And I don’t think you can really find it anywhere else. So I didn’t want to leave that.”

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