It was September 30, 2017.
There was just over 33 minutes left to play in Indiana’s match vs. Santa Clara. The Hoosiers were up 4-0. IU was well in control and had just cleared a Broncos corner kick.
Every red IU jersey was in the box defending the set piece looking to keep the shutout. Once cleared, it was then-junior Jeremiah Gutjahr who went to try to gain possession back for the Hoosiers.
One Broncos defender headed it up in the air to his teammate. Gutjahr still chased. As the second Santa Clara player kicked it back towards goal, Gutjahr turned his back and then fell.
“He didn’t get up,” Paul Gutjahr, Jeremiah’s dad, said. “When he didn’t get up I thought this was really bad. I’ve been watching him since he was four years old, he always gets up.”
It had yet to be diagnosed, but Gutjahr had just torn his right anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).
Jeremiah was on the ground for several minutes. He was carted off after the training staff attended to him. Gutjahr came back to the field for the closing minutes of the game helped by a pair of crutches.
“I went down to the fence, when I saw him crutching,” close friend and former IU soccer player Caleb Konstanski said. “I saw his knee and it was the size of a bowling ball.”
That play would be Gutjahr’s last action of the 2017 season. The Bloomington native now faced a long journey ahead. Maybe the most unfortunate part is, according to his dad, he was just about three minutes away from being taken out. For good or for bad, it was just a freak accident.
I’ve been watching him since he was four years old, he always gets up
As Gutjahr went in for surgery shortly there after, doctors explained to him that he was fairly lucky, all things considered.
“They rank ACL injuries zero to 10, nine is career-ending,” his dad said. “They said his was an 8.5. He was that close to not playing soccer again.”
It was definitely a blow to both the Hoosiers and to Gutjahr. Earlier in 2017, Gutjahr had played with the United States Under-20 Men’s National Team in a tournament in Costa Rica. He was such an integral part of IU’s midfield.
But the Hoosiers would have to move on without him. Gutjahr would also have to move on without the Hoosiers. The long road to recovery was just getting started.
There are lonely days and nights when recovering from an injury as gruesome as Gutjahr’s. Doubt can creep into your mind. Nothing is assured anymore.
But if there was anyone who could fight through all of that, it was Jeremiah. He’s never taken the easy way out throughout his soccer career. When he was choosing where to go to college, he wanted to be on a team where he wouldn’t start as a freshman, where he would have to fight for a position and where he would be pushed.
“Jeremiah’s a pretty special kid when it comes to how mature he is based on most 20, 21 year olds,” IU coach Todd Yeagley said. “He’s got a big picture mentality and it didn’t take much for him to go ‘alright, I’m just going to have to work everyday, control what I can control.’ Easy for him, like easier for him than people his age.”
Mature is a word that comes up a lot when talking about Gutjahr. His dad says he thinks of Jeremiah as “an old soul in a young body.”
This injury though, being his first long-term injury, would push him maybe more than ever before. But he never got too down on himself.
“There was a lot of time alone,” Gutjahr said. “That was mentally taxing at times. Just doing a lot of work on your own. People talk about getting injured, it’s isolating. Just because you’re doing different stuff, you come to practice and you can’t run around, you can’t kick a soccer ball. You’re working to get back on the field, but it’s just different. There’s a different rhythm to it.”
The rehab was long. The offseason maybe felt longer. Gutjahr didn’t practice with the team from the day he got injured until the day before IU’s last exhibition match in August. It was a span of 323 days.
Missing last season was especially tough. Growing up as a Bloomington kid, the ride to the national championship was something Gutjahr hated to miss. He sat in the stands and watched it all unfold. The team embraced him last season when he went down with the injury. They wanted to play “for Jeremiah.”
Watching the championship game in the stands, just gives you chills just thinking about it
With the game being against Stanford, it meant a little bit more to Gutjahr. For one, both of his parents attended Stanford. His final two schools in the recruiting process also happened to be Stanford and Indiana. Being a Bloomington soccer player and watching IU growing up was just the cherry on top of an unfortunate situation.
“You spend your entire life following IU soccer and dreaming about playing in the national championship game and being on the team,” Gutjahr said. “Starting the first half of the season and playing a lot and then watching the championship game in the stands, just gives you chills just thinking about it.”
That may have been one of the toughest parts of his rehab. But when the season was finished, Gutjahr’s work was just getting started. Especially since he went to Bloomington High School North, he has a support group in Bloomington.
He said family and friends reached out, but there was one friend that stood out above the rest.
The day after Gutjahr injured his knee, he found himself in a place all too familiar: Caleb Konstanski’s living room.
While Gutjahr’s knee may have still been the size of a bowling ball, as Konstanski mentioned the night before, that day’s host drew upon a Kobe Bryant quote as his message to his close friend. Bryant had sent it to an NBA player who had just gotten injured. Konstanski thought it fit the situation for Gutjahr.
“I sent that to him, pretty much just saying ‘there’s going to be moments when you get really upset and frustrated and you’re going to miss it all, but it just makes you work that much harder,’” Konstanski said. “I continually shared that with him because there were days when he felt that for sure, but he knew he’d come back better than ever and quicker too.”
Konstanski has been a constant in Gutjahr’s life since he was young. He would “babysit” Gutjahr as a kid. But Konstanski didn’t think about it that way. He was 11 or 12 when he started watching Gutjahr and his brother. He considered it just hanging out.
But that grew into something larger. The two have stayed close since then. Them both playing soccer, and both for IU, helped that relationship grow even more.
“We grew up and always stayed in touch and in high school and college we’d do one on one trainings, two or three times a week,” Konstanski said. “It grew into an awesome friendship. I consider him my little brother. He was in my wedding, but I remember talking to him when he was 13 or 14 and he was giving me life advice. He was always mature beyond his years.”
There’s going to be moments when you get really upset and frustrated and you’re going to miss it all, but it just makes you work that much harder
Their relationship is unique. Paul says he can say things to Jeremiah, but Konstanski is able to relate more. He mentioned Konstanski being a laid back, optimistic guy, which can be a good thing for Jeremiah who is a bit more serious by nature.
Aside from Konstanski, being from Bloomington was a plus in this situation for Gutjahr. Friends and family reached out. He was able to go home when he needed. There was an extra level of comfort being in the place where he grew up, a place he feels a great loyalty to.
“I had a lot of people reach out, which was very supportive,” Gutjahr said. “I’m from Bloomington, so family being here, friends, that was incredible. A lot of great friends just super supportive, encouraging. I wouldn’t be here without my teammates, friends, the whole support group, it was incredible.”
It’s always said in situations like these that when players get hurt, there’s always a chance they come back better.
Gutjahr has hit the ground running in 2018. Getting back to full fitness for a midfielder like Gutjahr can be tough. He runs maybe more than anyone on the field for IU. But thus far, the returns have been good.
Konstanski tries to get to as many games as he can, and he says Gutjahr hasn’t lost a step, especially in one area.
Once you have an injury like that, I think every time you play, you’re grateful that you’re playing
“One thing I’ve always told him since he was 10 years old was that I wanted him to be more physical on defense and hit a few people,” Konstanski said. “It’s something that when we talk after every game through high school and college, I say ‘you played well, you should hit more people.’ That’s something that definitely could have dropped off coming back from injury, but it’s been fun seeing him play more physical and hit people. There’s no timid aspect in his play and it’s the best soccer I’ve ever seen him play.”
Gutjahr has already been an integral part for IU in 2018. Yeagley says everyone knows IU’s best teams have Jeremiah in them. He’s added taking corner kicks to his repertoire and complements Francesco Moore nicely in the midfield.
It took Gutjahr some time to get over the fact that he missed last year’s College Cup run. But now back on the field his dad sees him get a little more of his “mojo” back.
“I think he doesn’t take it for granted,” Paul said. “Once you have an injury like that, I think every time you play, you’re grateful that you’re playing.”
Gutjahr knows he’s fortunate his knee injury wasn’t worse than it could have been. He’s becoming more confident day by day and game by game. As a senior, this is his last chance to play in Bloomington, the place where he grew up.
But just like anyone coming off a serious injury, he’s just happy to be back playing the sport he loves.
“I think it’s a different, new perspective,” Gutjahr said. “People say that all the time when you come back from an injury, you have a new appreciation for being back out there. Such a great group of guys, so being able to get another round with them, another chance of playing, it’s a lot of fun every time I go out there. Just very thankful.”