Northwestern's Drake Dunsmore caught the swing pass in the flat, shook free of Auburn defender Demond Washington and rumbled down the sideline.
About 40 yards later, Dunsmore encountered his next victim, Auburn's All-SEC cornerback Walter McFadden. McFadden appeared to have Dunsmore wrapped up around the 20-yard line, but Dunsmore kept pumping his legs, eventually depositing McFadden around the 8 before darting into the end zone.
Listed as a superback, a hybrid position that includes tight ends and fullbacks, Dunsmore looked more like Superman on his 66-yard touchdown catch in an epic Outback Bowl.
It's hard to believe that just six months earlier, Dunsmore was taking daily blood thinner medication and didn't know if he'd even play the season. And exactly three months after the Outback Bowl, the Northwestern standout was on an operating table in St. Louis, enduring a seven-and-a-half hour surgery that included the removal of a rib.
Dunsmore appeared in every game in the 2009 season, and he expects to do the same this fall as one of the Big Ten's top tight ends. But his body has taken a beating off the field.
"I’ve got some gruesome scars," he said. "When I go to the beach, I get a few extra head-turns."
The problem began last summer, as Dunsmore worked his way back from a torn ACL that cost him the 2008 season. He had added 15 pounds of muscle, putting him north of 240 pounds, and practically lived in the weight room.
It was there when he noticed numbness and swelling down his right arm. At first, he only felt it while doing over-the-head lifts, but the symptoms became more frequent, even cropping up while he watched TV at home. Dunsmore visited Northwestern's team doctor, who conducted an ultrasound and discovered a blood clot in his right subclavian vein, which runs from under the collarbone.
His next stop was a vascular surgeon in downtown Chicago, who thought Dunsmore might still play the season as long as the clot was removed and the symptoms subsided. Dunsmore was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, a condition where the rib closest to the collarbone and the scalene muscle, which runs down the side of the neck, impinge the vein, causing clots.
"They told me it’s structural, it’s the way I’m put together," Dunsmore said. "But it was also the amount of muscle I put on with my shoulder and neck. It didn’t help the situation.”
In July, he began taking blood thinners.
"Injections every night and taking a pill every day," he said. "I didn’t really know if I was going to be able to play the season. The doctors attacked it like, ‘OK, it’s July, we’ve got to get rid of this blood clot first and see how long it takes.’ "
Dunsmore responded well and was cleared to play just a week before training camp, arriving "really out of shape."
Although it took him several games to get comfortable, Dunsmore finished third on the team in both receptions (47) and receiving yards (523). He finished second among Big Ten tight ends in receiving and is the top returnee for 2010.
"I didn’t have any symptoms during the season," he said. "I was blessed to make it through without any complications."
Dunsmore had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder in January, but the symptoms on his left side resurfaced when he started lifting again during winter workouts. This time, he went to St. Louis to see Dr. Robert Thompson, a renowned specialist on thoracic outlet syndrome at Washington University Medical Center.
Thompson quickly discovered that the blood clot was back.
"Right away, he said, ‘This is going to be a reoccurring thing for the rest of your life. If you want to have any kind of lifestyle like you do now, you’re going to need surgery to repair it or you’re going to be at a very high risk of getting blood clots,'" Dunsmore recalled.
But this wasn't a simple surgery. Doctors had to remove a rib and the scalene muscle by making two incisions near Dunsmore's neck.
The seven-and-a-half hour procedure took place April 1.
"They said it’d be extremely painful and you stay in the hospital for a few days just for pain management," Dunsmore said. "They said you can’t move your neck, you can’t even get up out of bed and walk around. But within two days, I was doing all that. I was up, walking around, I didn’t have any pain after a week and a half, hardly any pain."
Dunsmore had to wait 12 weeks to ensure there were no complications before being cleared to play.
He'll actually be in better shape when Northwestern opens preseason camp Aug. 9 than he was a year ago. Although he's down a rib, Dunsmore barely notices a difference. Aside from those stares on the beach, of course.
"I’ve got to come up with different stories every time, fool with people," he said.
Despite the flashy title, Northwestern's superbacks have been used sparingly for most of the spread offense era, but that should change this fall. Dunsmore is the team's leading returning receiver, and offensive coordinator Mick McCall loves to feature him in a vertical passing attack.
"After a year like last year, where we utilized the position a little more, I think we’re going to see even more of that," Dunsmore said.
Dunsmore expects more plays like his Outback Bowl run, even with one fewer rib on his frame.
"Oh, yeah," he said. "I’m going to be even faster now."