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Bukasa overcomes injury to finish season

November 15, 2013 - Mitch Rupert
There's still flashes of greatness. Like quick snapshots to remind you that Kabongo Bukasa is still Kabongo Bukasa.

There was a diving fourth-down play he made two weeks ago at King's to knock away a pass, giving the ball back to Lycoming's offense. There was a leaping interception over the middle of the field against Delaware Valley which ended and Aggies drive in the red zone.

There have been moments when Bukasa, the Warriors' middle linebacker provides a reminder why he's the conference's reigning defensive player of the year. Maybe they don't come as often as they have in the past, but there's a reason for that.

Since preseason camp Bukasa has been playing hurt. But it's not the usual aches and pains which come through the course of a football season. It's an injury which nearly derailed his season before it ever began.

The tendon connecting his hamstring to the back of his knee ruptured from the bone during the first week of practice in a non-contact drill. On the surface it sounds catastrophic, athletically.

Two days later, though, Bukasa was back running until doctors told him to stop until they figured out exactly what the injury was and the extent to which it should hamper him. It took a few weeks of research, talking to other doctors who had dealt with the injury and finding out the prognosis for Bukasa's senior season at Lycoming.

Doctors determined Bukasa would be able to play with the injury if he chose not to have surgery to repair it right away. He would lose some of the explosiveness and maybe speed which made him maybe the most unique defender in the Middle Atlantic Conference over his two previous years as a starting middle linebacker.

The pain is practically non-existent. Bukasa was more concerned about what would happen if he took a hit to the back of his knee more than dealing with the pain. Because he decided almost right away that surgery was not an option for him.

Surgery would have ended his season. He had no intentions of coming back for another year, though.

“These guys, these 13 seniors graduating,” Bukasa said as he nodded toward the door to the Lycoming locker room, “everyone one of us played JV games together. Every one of us started at the bottom and worked hard to get to the varsity level. This is our time. For me, I felt like if I laid back and let these guys go and I come back next year, I felt like it wouldn't be the same. So I wanted to play for these guys.”

He knew the tradeoffs which came with his decision. He'd be able to play but not at the level he was accustomed to playing at.

He wouldn't be quite the same player who was in the top 10 in the league in both tackles and interceptions a year ago. Bukasa admitted earlier this week he didn't feel like the same player he was a year ago. He estimates he's playing now at about 70 percent, at best.

But even 70 percent of Kabongo Bukasa is still better than many of his counterparts in the Middle Atlantic Conference.

“It was bizarre. When we looked into it, it was a series of ups and downs,” Lycoming head coach Mike Clark said of the injury. “It went from this shouldn't be a big deal, to this could be really significant, to he's definitely done for the year. And when they said he was done for the year, it was really alarming. But based on some professional people having played through it, we didn't think it was season ending. Everybody was comfortable moving forward, so that's what we did.”

The injury and initial diagnosis had come before the Warriors had begun the transition of moving Brian Campbell from running back to middle linebacker. Campbell's emergence, especially a stellar effort playing in place of Bukasa in a season-opening loss to Brockport State, has allowed the coaching staff to give Bukasa a series or two off each week just to make sure he's OK.

Outside linebackers Tyler Denike and Kyle Sullivan have helped take some of the pressure off Bukasa by playing at all-conference levels all season, despite both of them dealing with shoulder injuries. Sullivan, Denike and Bukasa make up three of Lycoming's top five leading tacklers this season.

But Bukasa's numbers are clearly down from last year. He has 44 tackles this year, or 5.5 tackles per game, going into Saturday's regular season finale against Stevenson. That's a number that is down more than two tackles per game from last year's total.

The explosiveness and speed which made him a threat sideline to sideline, and goal line to goal line is there in spurts, but it hasn't been there as consistently as it has been in the past.

He's worn a brace on his knee since the injury just to stabilize his knee, but the pain is at a minimum thanks to the rehabilitation work he's done.

“I haven't played at 100 percent all year,” Bukasa said. “The things that I'm used to doing, I'm not able to do. The things I was doing all summer, the things I was doing well before I got hurt, I can't do well any more.”

“He still shows glimpses,” Clark said. “His numbers won't be the same as they were a year ago, but we're still really happy that he plays middle linebacker for us.”

The injury may have changed Bukasa as a player, but it hasn't changed who he is as a leader. It hasn't changed who he is as an energetic spark plug for a team which still has a chance to claim a share of its 15th MAC title, and even a playoff spot.

Spend an afternoon at a Lycoming practice, or around the field on game day and there's a good chance you're going to hear Bukasa on the field before you see him. He's always got an encouraging word to say or a joke to crack. He always seems to be smiling.

Is he frustrated by his injury? You bet. But he's not letting it define him. Bukasa knows he can still help his football team win games, and he's hoping to help them win one more today.


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