East Lansing – Kyle Ahrens doesn’t know when his body will say, “Enough.”
For a lot of players, that time would have already come and gone, but for the fifth-year senior at Michigan State, letting go hasn’t been quite that simple.
Maybe Ahrens just isn’t listening. After all, considering the broken legs, mangled ankles and a crumbling back, it sure seems like Ahrens’ body is at least giving him a hint.
But as No. 15 Michigan State nears the end of its non-conference schedule, Ahrens will just keep on plugging away. In the final season of his college career, it’s as if Ahrens is telling his body, "Just give me another few months, then that will be it."
If his body had any actual bargaining power, that might be the end of it. But Ahrens is determined to play this entire season after so many have been cut short. Of course, it’s not that Ahrens is backing off. Known for giving his body up for a loose ball or a rebound as much as for a 3-pointer or a thunderous dunk, Ahrens isn’t changing the way he plays, even as the coaching staff is harping on him to at least dial it down a bit in practice.
“It’s how I play, not trying to be someone I'm not,” Ahrens said. “But then again, they're trying to help me so I can last this whole season. Once you really see it, it is working. So, I mean, it's kind of like I'm leaving it all on the floor no matter what.”
Ahrens knows no other way to play the game, but even he can reach a breaking point. It’s easy to understand considering the long list of injuries he’s suffered. It began with a broken leg in high school, an injury that slowed him when he arrived in East Lansing in 2015-16. He made it through the entire 2016-17 season before a broken foot in preseason practiced ended 2017-18.
Then last season, as he fought through a balky back the entire year, it was the nasty ankle sprain in the Big Ten tournament championship game that forced Ahrens to take in the Final Four run from the bench.
It’s all been in the back of his mind, to an extent, and Tom Izzo is doing his best to make sure Ahrens doesn’t shortchange himself or the team.
“He needs to play more reckless, not insane like he sometimes does,” Izzo said. “He shouldn't jump into a brick wall, but you’ve got to go up and get a rebound.
“It’s easy to say is one of my toughest kids, but when you've been through what he's been through, maybe you do (hold back) subconsciously. So I've really put that on him. I said, ‘Hey, let's take the gloves off. Let's get after it. Let's see what happens and because if you don't, you're not gonna be playing like who you are.’”
The mental part of Ahrens’ injuries can be overcome, and it’s clear Ahrens is doing a good job of that. However, the reality is the ailments have taken a physical toll, too.
His back is a constant concern. Through much of last season, Ahrens needed to stretch out the muscles just get be able to get up and move around each morning. And as the 23-year-old navigates his final season, the ankles and knees are aching, as well.
“It's everything,” Ahrens said. “I still have foot pain from last March. So, I mean, it's pretty much everything … I've had so many broken bones and they just tend to ache after a while. So just the past injuries kind of creep up to you sometimes.
“But there’s only one way to get through it and that’s to work through it. That’s what I talk to my trainer about and what I talk to coach about. You’ve got to understand that if something happens, I mean it's God's plan.”
It’s hard. Ahrens is clear about that.
Yes, it’s physically hard, but the mental drain has taken its toll, too.
“It’s a constant process,” Ahrens said. “I always relate back to what (former NFL quarterback) Andrew Luck said. It's a constant process of getting back, getting hurt, rehab, getting back, getting hurt, rehab. So it's just like a big circle I've been going on since freshman year high school. That’s mentally draining, but I have such great guys that helped me out each and every day that helped me through it and make me want to be here.”
Ahrens is still here, and he’ll continue to give what he can for the Spartans (8-3, 2-0 Big Ten). Aside from a good defender and rebounder, Ahrens can knock down his share of 3-pointers and he’ll keep hitting the floor when he needs to. He says he’s learned how to fall, something where his uses “the oldness of me to my advantage.”
Ahrens is averaging a little more than 13 minutes a game, a number that likely can’t get too much higher. He’s capable of 20 minutes a game, but that’s probably the limit.
Every once in a while, he’ll soar to the rim, flashing the athleticism that first drew the Spartans coaching staff to him.
Those moments are rare now, but Ahrens is content with where is physically.
“I'm 100 percent of what I will be right now, of how I will feel,” he said. “I'm not going to be what I was four years ago where I'm able to jump and dunk it like crazy. That won't be me anymore and I have to understand that. There's times I just feel really good and then times that, you know, there's times where my ankle is just not feeling good, but the adrenaline helps.”
In those moments, when the adrenaline is pumping, Ahrens is everything he expected to be. How long that lasts is anyone’s guess.
But you can bet, until that moment, Ahrens won’t be holding back.
“I don't know what tomorrow holds,” he said, “so I might as well give it my all.”
Eastern Michigan at No. 15 Michigan State
Tip-off: 7 p.m. Saturday, Breslin Center, East Lansing
TV/radio: Big Ten Network/WJR 760
Records: Eastern Michigan 9-1, Michigan State 8-3, 2-0 Big Ten
Outlook: Eastern Michigan’s 9-1 start is the best under coach Rob Murphy and matches the 1996-97 squad that reached the MAC championship game. … EMU is forcing opponents to turn the ball over 19.5 times a game, which leads the MAC and ranks eighth in the nation.