I didn’t know it was going to be this intense. It really challenged me to ask the question, ‘Do I love the game enough to come back, to go through those types of injuries or those types of risk again? – Gionni Paul said.

SALT LAKE CITY — There isn’t much Gionni Paul loves more than football.

But after five surgeries and procedures to repair, and then fuse, broken bones in his foot, the Utah senior linebacker was forced to contemplate whether he loved the game enough to come back for his final collegiate season.

“I didn’t know it was going to be this intense,” he said of the Lisfranc fracture that forced him to miss some of spring camp in 2014, five games last fall and all of spring camp this year. “It really challenged me to ask the question, ‘Do I love the game enough to come back, to go through those types of injuries or those types of risk again?’ I just got tired of procedures. It really humbled me as a person and as a man and as a leader.”

The toughness that makes Paul such an asset as a linebacker and leader was, ironically, what led to him suffering longer than he might have if he hadn’t pushed his body as hard as he does.

“I just don’t have that on and off switch when it comes to injuries and such,” he said. “I’ve always been taught to play through injuries and you don’t let anything affect you.”

Paul knows that doesn’t mean playing when he’s legitimately hurt. But he also feels such an obligation to his teammates, feels so much passion for the game, that distinguishing which pain he should push through and when his body needs a break is difficult.

“I do love playing the game a lot,” he said. “I love everything being on my shoulders. I am a leader. I’m the type of guy, I want to make the last play. I like to put the game in my hands.”

He knows now that he should have told coaches he was hurting more than the usual aches and pains that accompany any recovery. He smiles shyly and shrugs when asked why he didn’t tell coaches he was hurting last fall.

“I just looked at it as me helping the team,” he said. “I think I can help the team more than anybody else. I study a lot of film and I just feel like I’m the one who is supposed to be out there. I’m the one, if I miss the last play, put it all on me.”

After he broke his foot during spring camp of 2014, Paul was told it would take eight or nine months to recover.

“I came back in four months,” he said. Paul began having pain during the Michigan game, but instead of telling medical personnel he tried to mitigate the pain himself.

“I knew something was wrong with my foot,” he said, admitting to doing things like 3 a.m. ice baths in hopes he’d be able to heal himself. Eventually, he came clean and the news from doctors wasn’t good. “They didn’t believe I was playing on it,” he said. They told him he’d need surgery, which led to other procedures, to heal the damage he’d done.

Paul said it was a powerful experience that brought him to his knees and changed his perspective on the game.

“It really hurt me,” he said. “It was a really, really humbling experience to go through that. …I was just like, ‘Man, I love this game, and I’m going to give it my all.”

He said despite feeling he was ready to participate in spring camp, coaches held him out of practices.

“I think that was a good decision,” he said smiling, admitting it was gut-wrenching not to be able to play.

“Just not being able to run around like a kid again,” he said of what was toughest about being sidelined. “I’m the type of person, I’m very active. I love playing ball. I love jumping and diving. So it really hurt me not being able to do those types of things.” Because he reinjured his foot last fall, he feels like he’s never been able to show Utah coaches, fans and opponents what he’s capable of.

Especially frustrating was the fact that Paul had never felt better.

“Before I got hurt, I believe I was at the top of my game,” he said. “I was making plays. I was in on every other play; I was flying around. I ran a good 40, and I was as strong as can be. It all just happened, and it was a very humbling experience.”

From the time he was small, he said football provided an incentive to work hard. He had supportive parents and lived in a good neighborhood, but the area around his high school was fraught with opportunities to get caught up in life-altering activities. “Football, and me wanting to be great, kept me away from a lot of those things,” he said, adding that his high school coach was instrumental in his success. “Without football, without the coaching, the guidance, I could easily have went down the wrong path.”

He said football has taught him many lessons, but this most recent experience might be the most important. He pauses a long time before singling out what he feels is the most important thing he’s learned from the game. “How to humble myself,” he said. “How to be a great person and teammate on and off the field.”

Linebacker coach Justin Ena, who played the position at BYU and in the NFL, said dealing with injuries comes with playing football.

“It kind of is the nature of the beast,” he said. “You’ve got to learn to play through pain. But we’ve got some tough guys there, and they do a good job of pushing through any nagging injury that there is, and then we hope that they get healthier throughout the year.”

That’s not to say players should push through injuries that are damaging to themselves and detrimental to the team. “Gionni is a tough guy,” Ena said. “He battles through pain. The issue with that is that sometimes he doesn’t take himself out of practice when he should. We’ve got to be smart with that, but at the same time, we do want a tough guy in there.” Ena, who joined the Utes' coaching staff in February, said he tries to watch how players perform during drills and practices as a way to gauge whether they’re fully healed or not.

He said this year’s linebackers are “driven to the utmost.”

“They know what they need to do,” he said. As for Paul, in particular, he said he’s a very vocal leader who backs up what he says with solid play on the field. He also said he is one of the group’s best teachers, helping the younger players understand the intricacies of the game.

Paul loves teaching the younger players and said he sees himself coaching when he can no longer play. He said his struggles have made him appreciate the game even more because he now understands in a very real way how a player’s days can end without notice.

He didn’t spend a lot of time depressed during his recovery because he said he’s “one of those people who believes things happen for a reason.”

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“I think it was God’s way of telling me I’m moving too fast,” he said. “Slow down. Enjoy the game. I really thought about it. I came back, and then I was hurt again. I thought, maybe this game is not for me. But this is something I love, and I’m back at it. I grind and I grind and I grind. Here I am again, playing this lovely game of football.”

His time on the sidelines also fueled his fire for the upcoming season as an expected starter for the Utes.

“I’m just going to show the world,” he said, grinning. “It just puts a little chip on my shoulder. I can’t wait to get out there and win. I’m much more intense (on the field). I don’t think you’ve seen all of Gionni Paul. I got a lot more in my tank.”

Twitter: adonsports EMAIL: adonaldson@deseretnews.com

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