ORONO — Kris Enslen won’t lie. He thought seriously about hanging it up this summer, calling it quits on a collegiate football career that had become a literal grind, a bone against scar tissue grind inside a knee that twice required surgical repair.
“I was just like, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to make it,’ ” said Enslen, a fifth-year senior defensive lineman at the University of Maine.
He thought of his friends back home in Delaware, of buddies who played college football at Western New England, Shippensburgh and West Chester. Their careers ended early, and not by their choosing.
“I just see the pain in their eyes when they told me,” Enslen said, “or in their voices when they called me on the phone and told me.”
That emotional pain, it turns out, is worse than the physical ache Enslen must endure to continue playing his chosen sport, the sport he has played for the past 15 years, since he was 7.
“The doctor told me,” Enslen said, ” ‘You CAN play on this. It’s not going to be fun, but you can do it.’ But you’re not going to take 60 reps a game. It’s not possible.’ “
A career that started with such promise at Maine — taking over for Jovan Belcher, now with the Kansas City Chiefs; making eight tackles in his first start in 2009 and 25 in his first five games — is now winding down with Enslen still contributing, but in a limited role. Through four games, he has two solo tackles, six assists and one of Maine’s five quarterback sacks.
He returns to his home state this weekend as the Black Bears visit the University of Delaware Saturday afternoon. Maine is 1-3 overall and 0-1 in the Colonial Athletic Association. Delaware, ranked 16th in the country, is 4-1 and 1-1.
“I’m going to have a lot of people there,” said Enslen, who hails from Middletown, Del. “That stadium is awesome. A lot of my family hasn’t seen me play since high school, and they get to see me play in a college setting in front of 22,000 people. It’s pretty cool.”
What they’ll see Saturday is Enslen on the field for about half of Maine’s defensive plays. He rotates through the defensive line with Matt Pellerin, Matt Wilson and David Toriola.
“Obviously, we use (Enslen) as much as we can,” said defensive line coach Dennis Dottin-Carter. “He’s a senior. He’s a leader for us out there.”
Head coach Jack Cosgrove sees Enslen as a disrupter, batting down passes (as was the case in the Boston College game) and collapsing the pocket on a quarterback. Cosgrove also sees Enslen as an example for younger players or anyone rehabilitating an injury, dutifully spending time getting treatment in the training room.
“That’s kind of a thankless commitment, and it’s monotonous, too,” Cosgrove said. “I walk in there and very rarely do I not see him at one point, either morning or afternoon. … I’m very impressed with how he’s managed himself.”
It was three years ago Wednesday — Enslen remembers the Oct. 3rd date vividly — in the fourth quarter of a game in Orono against Delaware that Enslen first injured his left knee. A fourth down play near the goal line. A double-team block, followed by a running back whose helmet flew off. A moving pile, a referee’s whistle, Enslen’s ankles getting caught beneath him as both knees bent backward.
“I got up and it was like, ‘That was weird,’ ” he said.
Enslen ran to the sideline, had the knee checked, and was cleared to return to the game, which he did on Delaware’s next possession. He felt fine for two plays, even chasing down a back to make a tackle after a short pass reception, but in sprinting to cover a receiver on the next play, his leg gave way and he hit the turf as if felled by an ax.
“I knew it was gone immediately,” he said.
That he wasn’t the only player rehabilitating after surgery made things a little easier. Tight end Jeff Falvey also got hurt that year, as did quarterback Warren Smith, who later became Enslen’s roommate.
Enslen also underwent shoulder surgery and was just finishing up his rehabilitation work when the 2010 season rolled around. He wasn’t 100 percent, but muddled through.
He finally felt completely healthy in the spring of 2011, only to tear his ACL again in the last week of spring football. Once more, he worked his way back, and was rewarded with action in the NCAA semifinal game against Georgia Southern.
This spring he received his diploma in exercise science, a field in which he is currently pursuing a master’s degree. This summer he considered moving on and putting football behind him before deciding he still had something to offer.
“I can push through the pain for a while,” he said, “because I’d like to end my career on a good note.”
Maine’s other Delaware native is senior tight end Justin Perillo, an all-CAA player who has drawn double- and triple-coverage this season and been held to nine catches for 89 yards and no touchdowns.
Through four games last season, which he began as Maine’s third tight end after Falvey and Derek Buttles, Perillo had 14 catches for 162 yards and a touchdown.
“He’s more of a marquee guy,” Cosgrove said, “who has been recognized by our opponents that, ‘We have to defend him, we have to find a way to stop.’ “
Perillo said quarterback Marcus Wasilweski has plenty of other options, particularly at wide receiver.
“Of course I would like to contribute more,” he said, “but it’s all about the win.”