Monday October 18th, 2010

Nobody died and no lives were ruined, but if you don't feel for Robbie Hummel right now, you aren't really a sports fan. You might as well be watching video games instead of real ones. If you ever wondered what the exact opposite of One Shining Moment was ... well, now we know.

The essential facts of Hummel's story can be written in a sentence:

In February, as Hummel and Purdue were gearing up for a Final Four run, he tore his anterior cruciate ligament, so he worked like crazy to come back for his senior year, then tore the ACL again in Purdue's first practice.

Yup, those are the facts: two ACL tears, two seasons ruined. But this story is about so much more than that. As Hummel's high school coach, Bob Punter, said Sunday: "I don't know why it has to happen to a kid that's this nice, in addition to being this talented. I can't say enough nice things about Rob. If I could dream up three new words to say about Rob, I would."

College basketball needs Robbie Hummel. It needs guys who can swim through the cesspool and still be clean when they get out. College hoops, particularly recruiting, has an image problem. And here was Hummel, making you realize why you loved this sport in the first place.

Hummel is an American archetype: the white shooter from Indiana who seems like he was born to be a college basketball star. He fits that description so perfectly that you might not realize he exceeds it. He isn't some 6-foot-1 shooter who needs two screens to get open. He is 6-8. He has a better all-around game than people realize.

He was absolutely good enough to lead Purdue to its first Final Four in 31 years, and maybe to its first national championship since before World War II. Purdue is one of the great basketball schools in the country, but if you tune in every March, you would never know it. Hummel could have been -- maybe should have been -- the guy who changed that. He could have been a legend in Indiana for the rest of his life.

And Bob Punter assures you: that wouldn't have changed Hummel a bit. Punter hung on for an extra year or two at Valparaiso High just to keep coaching Hummel. While other coaches screamed at their stars to pass or play defense, Punter said, "I yelled at him most of the time to shoot. He was too nice a guy. He would pass when he should be shooting."

When Hummel graduated, Punter retired from teaching. The coach is now an assistant at Lake Station High in northern Indiana. In the summer of 2009, after Hummel had become a Big Ten star, Punter asked him to talk to his Lake Station team. It wasn't Hummel's alma mater. This probably wasn't what he wanted to do that day. He went anyway and talked for three hours, mostly about work ethic.

But what Punter remembers about that day is what happened when he picked Hummel up. Hummel's father, Glenn, told Robbie that when he got back, they had house work to do. Robbie said he understood. It didn't matter that Hummel was a college star. He was expected to do his chores, and he was fine with it.

"He's genuine," Punter said. "He has no idea how cool he really is."

So now what happens? This is Hummel's senior year. He can take a medical redshirt and come back next year -- Punter said, "There is no doubt in my mind he will try" -- but it will never be the same. After tearing that ACL twice, Hummel probably won't be the same player. And when he returns, his two best Purdue teammates, E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson, will be gone.

Bob Punter was watching football the other night when the news scrolled across the bottom of the screen: Purdue forward Robbie Hummel tears anterior cruciate ligament ...

Punter was confused. That happened months ago. Why was it on the scroll now? Then he found out Hummel had suffered the same injury again.

As of Sunday evening, Punter hadn't talked to him yet. He didn't know what to say. Nobody does.

But Punter remembers that last March, as President Obama filled out his bracket for ESPN, the leader of the free world said that Purdue was in trouble because Robbie Hummel was hurt. Hummel's mother, Linda, was amazed that the President knew about her son.

Yeah, Robbie Hummel was always better than people realized. Sadly, that will probably be his legacy.

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