The last time Kansas State fans saw dual-threat quarterback Jesse Ertz was on crutches at the Cactus Bowl, where he watched the Wildcats beat UCLA from the sideline while recovering from the fifth major injury of his career.
Would he ever play football again? It seemed fair to wonder.
Turns out, it was never much of a question. His answer, then and now, was always yes.
“Without a doubt there have been a lot of injuries,” Ertz said in a phone interview Tuesday. “Thing is, I really feel like I learned a lot from every injury. I’m not a really religious guy, but I definitely felt like they were all for a reason, that something really good was about to happen.
“Last year, I felt primed to have a really good year. I felt like my best football was ahead of me. Having the season end early and feeling like I never got to show what I was fully capable of ... That motivated me. This is what I have done my whole life. It is a huge part of me. I just felt like I needed to see it through. That is what I am doing.”
That determination was rewarded over the weekend when the New Orleans Saints invited Ertz to their rookie camp, where he will try out for the team with other NFL hopefuls next week.
It’s not the NFL Draft dream he once envisioned, but after three season-ending injuries and five surgeries he’s thrilled all the same.
“All I really wanted was an opportunity,” Ertz said. “I was extremely happy and thankful for that. I’ve got no complaints. I am just really fortunate to be in this position.”
In New Orleans, Ertz will push for a roster spot on a team that has three quarterbacks -- Drew Brees, Taysom Hill and Tom Savage. The Saints also reportedly signed former Ohio State passer JT Barrett on Tuesday.
Ertz is not sure what it will take to make the squad, but he plans to approach rookie camp the same way he prepared for games at K-State, where he threw for 2,685 yards and 16 touchdowns and rushed for 1,399 yards and 15 touchdowns over the course of four injury-plagued seasons.
Finally healthy, Ertz thinks he is ready to prove himself.
“It’s a combination of bucket list and expectations,” Ertz said. “If I didn’t expect to make it here, then I wouldn’t have. It’s the same thing with going further. If your expectations end here and you are satisfied, you aren’t going to make it. I’m just staying hungry. I’m going to keep working at it and let things play out the way they do.”
It’s been a long journey to this point.
Ertz had the talent and leadership qualities to start three full seasons for the Wildcats and join the list of great quarterbacks to play for Bill Snyder. But injuries limited Ertz to just 23 games.
They began in high school when Ertz tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee as a senior and he sat out his first college season. Two years later, after winning K-State’s starting QB job, he tore the same ACL on an awkward tackle and was lost for the season after one play.
Then, after winning the job as a junior, an injury to his throwing shoulder midway through the year severely limited him. He played through it and led K-State to nine victories, but he also needed offseason surgery.
Finally, when he seemed ready to play a completely healthy season as a senior, he tore a meniscus in K-State’s fourth game against Baylor. Obviously hobbled, he kept playing until his knee went out the following week against Texas.
At that point, Ertz said he decided on surgery and hoped to return after a two-week absence. But surgeons noticed another issue during the procedure. He also had a cartilage fracture in his femur. He still tried to rehab his meniscus and play, but the pain was unmanageable. That led to another surgery, this one season-ending.
Without him, K-State lost home games to TCU and Oklahoma before winning five of its final six.
Previously, Ertz planned to petition the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility. But after taking in senior day on crutches, he decided he was done with college football.
“There were a lot of reasons for that,” Ertz said, “but the biggest was just that I went three straight years with a significant injury. It’s not very fun for me to watch film of my junior year and be like, ‘Man, I am better than that.’ I just wasn’t 100 percent. It felt like my time here was over and it was time to move on. But I still have some football in me and that is why I am doing what I am doing.”
His latest surgeries didn’t leave much time for Ertz to prepare for K-State’s pro day on March 13. He said he began throwing again in late February and was unable to run the 40-yard dash for scouts. Still, he performed well enough to get calls from several NFL teams and a private workout with the Chiefs.
Going into the draft, Ertz expected to sign as a free agent the same way former teammates Byron Pringle landed with the Chiefs and Matthew McCrane joined the Arizona Cardinals.
Instead, he’s off to New Orleans in hopes of securing a deal with the Saints.
He will play football again.