Having a brother who owns a physical therapy clinic in Montgomery County and earned his doctorate from the University of Maryland, Baltimore would seem to be a significant advantage for Jake Funk as he sought to rebound from a torn ACL in his left knee for the second year in a row.
But brotherly love went only so far as Funk, a fifth-year senior running back for the Maryland football program, rehabilitated his knee with his brother five times per week, lifted weights with friends in a barn four days per week, and worked out with a private coach three times per week.
“I was doing two-a-days to three-a-days,” he said Tuesday afternoon. “And there would be long, hard days when you’re just grinding your body, beating it down, recovering as best you could, and just doing the little things with him to really get my knee to the point where I feel extremely confident.”
The pain has paid off. The 5-foot-10, 205-pound Funk not only navigated training camp without a setback, but will also start as the offense’s primary back in the Terps' season opener at Northwestern on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
Reaching this moment in his career is a poignant one for Funk, who backed up former teammates like Ty Johnson (currently of the New York Jets) and Anthony McFarland Jr. (of the Pittsburgh Steelers).
“Truly happy,” he said of his emotions. “There are very few people that really understand what the last two, two-and-a-half years have been like for me from a physical standpoint and a mental standpoint. It’s been a long two years, to say the least.”
Coach Mike Locksley is not surprised by Funk’s recovery, describing him as “Steady Eddie.”
“We’ve tried to do everything we could to manage him because he’s one of those guys that he only knows one speed,” Locksley said. “So we’ve kind of had to pull the reins on him a little bit to slow him down and minimize how much practice reps he takes because he’s such a special player and brings so much value to us on the offensive side and on special teams. So seeing the way he’s battled back from these injuries, he’s in great shape, looks good, has had a great camp for us. I’m excited that he’s gotten to this point, and hopefully, he’ll be able to go out and create some value for himself as a football player in our offensive system.”
Despite setting the Maryland state high school record for career touchdowns with 52 on 249 carries at Damascus High School, Funk got few opportunities as a freshman in 2016 and a sophomore in 2017. Then as a junior in 2018, he played through a wrist injury before suffering the torn ACL.
Last fall, Funk enjoyed the best start of his career, averaging 10.8 yards per carry with 183 yards on 17 attempts and scoring two touchdowns. He registered a career-high 94 yards and one score in a 63-20 rout of then-No. 21 Syracuse on Sept. 7.
But the following week, Funk injured the same ACL in a 20-17 loss to Temple and missed the remainder of the season. He hinted that he might have done a few things after the first tear differently.
“Obviously, the first time around didn’t work out so well,” he said. “But we went back, we tweaked a couple things we did in rehab, we were able to really have more time this time to be able to stress what we wanted to stress in the rehab process. "
As grueling as the rehabilitation was at times, Funk said he never considered giving up on football.
“I was never going to let an injury define me as a football player,” he said. “I love the game too much to step away just because of an injury unless it was really career-threatening or would affect me for the rest of my life. But ACL injuries, there have been many guys who have come back from them, especially the running back position. A guy like [former Minnesota Vikings running back] Adrian Peterson, who came back [from a torn ACL in 2011] and almost broke the single-season rushing record in the NFL [in 2012]. There’s just too many cases of guys coming back and succeeding after the injury to where I was like, ‘I have to do it.’”
Whether there would be a 2020 season for Funk to come back to seemed doubtful after the Big Ten suspended fall football in August. But Funk, who was one of the most vocal among the Terps about having the conference play, got his wish when the Big Ten reversed course last month.
“There were always questions,” he said. “Will this affect football season? You read things from people saying that it wouldn’t, and then you would read things from people saying that it would. So the whole time was just a huge portion of time of uncertainty. Yeah, you really questioned it — whether it was going to happen or it wasn’t. And then it got postponed and then reinstated. Yeah, the whole thing, just a big mess, but I’m really, truly happy just to be able to play and call it game week.”
Funk returns to headline a rushing offense that averaged a respectable 169.4 yards, but bade farewell to McFarland (614 yards and eight touchdowns) and Javon Leake (736 yards and eight scores). Saturday will mark Funk’s debut as the lead back, but Locksley expressed his confidence in Funk’s ability to carry out that role.
“He is that lead running back and very capable,” he said. “He’s a three-down guy. He’s a guy that can be smart in protection, who runs good routes, can get us tough, short yardage, has a nose for the end zone. So there’s no doubt he’s one of our primary guys. … Jake is one of those guys that has created a niche for himself as a ball carrier and leader. He’s really knowledgeable about our system and has had a great camp. So I see him playing a major role for us on offense.”
Funk said he has been honing his body and studying film to prepare for his first taste of football in 13 months. Saturday will be a culmination of the effort he put to get to this stage.
“I can’t complain at all,” he said. “My knee feels great. I’m stronger, faster, more in shape than I’ve ever been. But I’m really just excited to get out there. We’ll see what happens. I’m not into predicting anything. I’m just going to go out there and give everything I’ve got, and everything else is in God’s hands.”
Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
TV: BTN Radio: 105.7 FM
Line: Northwestern by 11