The phones are ringing off the hook.
It is 2003. High-school senior Mike Lehmann ’08 had just finished his tour of Division I college football camps with stops at Colorado, Kentucky and Notre Dame. At Notre Dame, Lehmann made a statement by running the fastest 40-yard time of all the inside linebackers at the event. Exhausted, he flies back to Columbus, Ohio to begin what is supposed to be his dream season at Olentangy High.
But it was over before he could even get started.
It starts during a routine day on the field. Feeling a click in his left hip during a sprint, Lehmann ignores it and toughs out the rest of practice.
“Something was definitely wrong,” he reflected in an interview three years later.
After getting the green light to keep practicing, the future Division I recruit continues to exert himself, and with each sprint, each drill, each repetition, his hip worsens and the pain spreads throughout his groin. Days later, the coaches pull the senior captain from conditioning as the once fleet-footed linebacker can merely limp across the field.
Going from orthopedist to orthopedist, the frustration builds as each doctor ends up misdiagnosing Lehmann’s condition. Olentangy’s season has started with its leader on the sideline, still unsure of what was wrong.
“It was killing me to miss everything as the team captain,” Lehmann said.
Finally, the football standout gets an MRI. The doctors diagnose the sharp pain in his groin as the result of a rare medical condition called osteitis pubis. Osteitis pubis is an inflammation of the pubic symphysis, the joint that holds together the ends of the pubic bone, leading to acute and chronic groin pain.
Desperate to get onto the playing field, Lehmann surveys his options: sit out, take cortisone shots or play with a brace. Anything that can get him back on the field.
“I even toyed with the idea of numbing the entire groin just to play in games,” he recalled.
This isn’t how anyone at Olentangy envisions Lehmann’s future in football: He is supposed to be the star. Programs like Notre Dame are supposed to be begging for him to come to their school. But five games into the season, there is no highlight reel — and the phone remains on the hook.
The large list of suitors has dwindled to mainly Ivy League schools along with Indiana, Kentucky and Northwestern. No one wants an injured player, or at least one with an unpredictable timeline for recovery.
Pushing forward, his winter consists of visiting the schools left on his list. Lehmann is somewhat committed to Princeton, but he changes his mind after a visit to New Haven where he falls in love with the campus and atmosphere. He quickly commits to Yale, his father’s alma mater, and cancels his trip to Kentucky.
And though he was content with his choice, he still had the feeling he should have been somewhere else.
“If I wouldn’t have gotten injured, I would never be here,” Mike admited. “I wanted to play for the best football program that would offer me a scholarship.”
The college athlete vision still holds strong. Yet osteitis pubis keeps coming back to threaten Lehmann’s aspirations. Struggling to make a full recovery, he assures the Yale coaches that he is healthy and hopes for the best. But during the conditioning tests on the first day of practice, former coach Kyle Metzler sees that Lehmann is still injured and pulls him out. More setbacks, more therapy, more frustration.
“Not getting on the field is incredibly frustrating,” he said.
Therapy never appears to help. All the sessions amount to nothing. Despite all his hard work, physical therapy only relieves the physical symptoms without addressing the root of the problem. But Lehmann can’t stop his life for osteitis pubis.
As he explained, “If things start to feel better, I start to go hardcore [with training] again,” with the detrimental effect of re-aggravating his condition.
August of sophomore year arrives. It is the same thing, the osteitis pubis is still there. He is unable to run, and he will not be playing football. For once in his life, Lehmann questions his own motivations. Why put in all the time for football if he isn’t going to play? Why should he go to all the meetings and practices just to end up not doing anything? The sophomore leaves the team but makes the promise that he will return when he is healthy.
Lehmann will not be playing football in front of 70,000 fans at Yale Bowl during The Game, but the former linebacker has learned to appreciate the experiences that he’s had.
Osteitis pubis may have destroyed his athletic goals and dreams, but he has bounced back to immerse himself into the Yale lifestyle.
As a sophomore, Mike sought to fill the void that football had left. Immediately, the always-moving Midwesterner explored other options and became more involved with the Saybrook College Council, the Sophomore Class Council and Zeta Psi. One year after quitting the team, Mike held the Zeta Psi vice presidency, planned a sold-out Gunther concert and won the Yale Student Activities Committee chairmanship. Now as a senior, he remains involved in various Christian groups and is a freshman counselor.
“I’m just trying to make the best of my time here. To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift,” he said.
After a stint of therapy in Trumbull, Conn. proved ineffective, Mike has moved on to working with specialists in New York City. This past January, MRI scans revealed a growth on his femur that contributes to the pain. More tests are on the way and no timetable has been laid out.
This interruption in life allowed Mike to escape the tunnel vision that saw athletics as the means to an end. During his time away from football, he has opened his eyes to new experiences, new people and new opportunities — and for that, he says, he is extremely grateful.