I will. I can. I am.
To B.J. Nard those are more than three simple phrases. They are commandments that he abided during a grueling stretch that would have rendered many incapable of moving on.
After redshirting as a freshman at Cal Poly in 2012, the defensive back was preparing for his first season as an active player when he tore his right ACL and meniscus in fall camp. The injury wiped out the 2013 season before it began and was so severe that he had to have a second round of surgery a few months into rehab.
“I became very depressed,” said Nard. “Emotionally I was destroyed and it took me a while to rebound. I had worked so hard to get back and then I had to start the process all over.”
While he gave it his all during fall camp in an attempt to return during the 2014 season, the second procedure ultimately resulted in Nard having to sit out yet another year. The knee had not recovered to the point where he could be the player he needed to be. However, he was able to better deal with yet another lost season because of something that happened several months earlier.
At Frontier High School in Bakersfield, Calif., Nard was a good friend and teammate of Ted Agu. Agu went on to Cal Berkley where he was a reserve defensive lineman and earned Pac-12 academic honors. While training with his teammates in February 2014 the 21-year-old collapsed and died from what a coroner ruled was a heart condition.
“It put a light on everything,” said Nard, who was born in Michigan and is the second youngest among Benny and Earlene’s eight children. “It gave me a purpose. To see a good friend pass away for no reason was incredibly sad and I think that gave me the drive to continue on for him.”
As Nard continued to grind away in preparation for taking the field with the Mustangs this year, he invoked the three phrases into his daily regimen while remembering Agu.
“Because of the things I have been through it is something personal, something for me to consider every day,” he said. “I will do whatever it takes to get back to where I want to be as a football player and as a person. ‘I can’ is the neat part. I tell myself that anything is possible and that there is hope. ‘I am’ is about having confidence. It is when you put yourself into a situation where you succeed.”
Nard certainly succeeded when he finally made his collegiate debut for the Mustangs in the Sept. 5 season opener at Montana, nearly four years after his last game as a high school senior. In a performance that seemed more storybook than reality, the safety had a school record-tying three interceptions in helping lead Cal Poly to a 20-19 victory over the Grizzlies, who entered the game ranked 12th in both FCS polls.
“It was an amazing feeling taking the field with my teammates,” said Nard, who would like to explore a career in sports management, perhaps as an agent. “After all I went through it was worth it. Even though I got three picks and was happy that I did, what I loved most is that we won the game.”
None of it may have been possible without the support of his family. Nard, who had a team-leading seven tackles in last week’s 35-21 loss at Arizona State, had plenty of pillars with which to lean.
“I had a tremendous amount family support,” said Nard, who has one season of eligibility remaining. “They made sure I kept my head up and they knew how much I wanted to get back to playing. Even though there were days I was down and out they helped me through it all.”
Fifteen to 20 family members and friends will be on hand for Saturday’s home opener in San Luis Obispo against Northern Iowa. The Mustangs enter the game, which can be seen on at 10:30 p.m. ET on ASN, ranked 17th in the FCS media poll and 18th in the coaches poll. NIU is 9/11, respectively.
Nard feels that this season, especially after the strong start, can be an impressive one for Cal Poly. Regardless, finally getting on the gridiron with his teammates has been special in itself.
“The whole thing I went through altered my perspective about life,” he said. “Today I am just a happy person. I am definitely blessed.”