Ground Up Sports Performance/courtesy
Former Iowa defensive back Jordan Bernstine (right), one of 13 Hawkeyes who were hospitalized with rhabdo symptoms in January 2011, opened Ground Up Sports Performance with partner Mike Bolio (left) last fall.

Nebraska players recovering from rhabdo will ‘get through it,’ former Iowa star says

Other than the soreness, the fatigue, the cramps, the nausea and the dark urine, it was duck soup. You never quite forget the feeling, largely because it feels like a rhinoceros just decided to use your body for a deck chair.

“It’s a different experience,” Jordan Bernstine says. “Your body has to go through some things, but you’ll get through it.”

That was his first thought for Nebraska Cornhuskers Tyjon Lindsey and Dylan Owen, both of whom reportedly were hospitalized and released after contracting the muscle disorder rhabdomyolysis — or rhabdo, for short — following a workout last week.

“I’m sure [Lindsey] is a tough kid,” says Bernstine, a defensive back at Iowa from 2007 to 2011 and with the Washington Redskins in 2012. “He’s been through some things and he’ll be all right. Get back on the field. You’ve just got to play like it never happened.”

“I would hope after bad things happen, you wouldn’t want them to continually happen — you’d adjust and make changes as necessary.”

— Former Iowa defensive back Jordan Bernstine on Nebraska coach Scott Frost and the Huskers’ rhabdo scare

Bernstine was one of the Rhabdo 13, a baker’s dozen of Hawkeyes football players who were hospitalized seven years ago this week with rhabdomyolysis, a condition that occurs when the breakdown of muscle fibers releases fiber contents into the bloodstream. Those contents can damage cells, induce kidney damage, cause outright kidney failure, or, if untreated, become fatal.

“Basically, [it’s] like overworking your body from working out hard,” says Bernstine, who now co-owns and trains athletes at Ground Up Sports Performance in Colorado Springs, Colo. “It’s something that happened in the past that I haven’t talked about or thought about in awhile. But it was definitely a different experience.

“But like I said, like with anything else, you’ve just got to get through it and get back on the stilts. It was nothing new to me — as with other injuries, I just had to push through it.”

Military report showed increases in rhabdo incidents

Bernstine recovered and went on to post his best season in an Iowa uniform that fall, ranking among Big Ten’s top 10 in tackles (89) and kickoff return average (23.8).

But at least one other Hawkeyes player contended that the rhabdo experience took his football career straight off the rails. One of Bernstine’s old teammates, cornerback Willie Lowe, filed a lawsuit against the school alleging that coaches and trainers didn’t properly supervise the workout in January 2011 and didn’t immediately provide medical care when the 13 players began experiencing severe pain and rhabdo symptoms. The two sides reached a settlement in January 2016 for $15,000, or roughly 8 percent of Lowe’s original $200,000 claim.

Nebraska wide receiver Tyjon Lindsey, shown here in the summer of 2017, was hospitalized last week with a severe muscle disorder caused by off-season workouts. (Land of 10/file photo)

Nebraska coach Scott Frost confirmed the players’ injuries to the Lincoln Journal-Star earlier this week and said the incident “is ultimately my responsibility.” Frost said the workouts that caused the rhabdo were brought over from the winter workout regimen at Central Florida, where he and strength and conditioning coach Zach Duval worked the last two seasons.

Studies have shown that rhabdo can be triggered by an overly intense workout after a gap in training, shocking muscles that haven’t yet re-learned how to recover and self repair. The disorder has been linked with military-style workouts, the kind that reportedly occurred at Oregon last winter, when three football players were hospitalized with rhabdo symptoms. A government report showed a 30 percent increase in rhabdo incidents among the U.S. Armed Forces from 2008 to 2012.

Neither Oregon nor Nebraska participated in a bowl game in the month before their respective January rhabdo cases became public. Iowa was coming off a postseaon berth, having won the 2010 Insight Bowl just a few weeks before workouts described by the Associated Press as …

[Being] only held once every three years as a test of physical stamina, mental toughness and to see who ‘wanted to be on the team,’ according to an investigative committee report commissioned by Iowa. The most grueling part were the 100 back squats players were asked to do at 50 percent of their most recent personal best. A study by University of Iowa doctors concluded that those squats were ‘significantly associated’ with an increased risk of rhabdomyolysis — with affected players more likely to think they could complete the untimed workout despite muscle failure.

The investigation cleared trainers and coaches of wrongdoing, determining that the injuries were unintentional and not the fault of those who designed the workout. But the school adopted the committee’s recommendations to discontinue the workout and to develop mechanisms to better identify players who are suffering health complications.

Bernstine imagines Frost and Duval would follow along a similar path — or at least take extra precautions to protect players who start to show the pain, cramping and swelling that indicate rhabdo is about to hit their system like a bag of bricks.

“You would hope so,” he says. “I would hope after bad things happen, you wouldn’t want them to continually happen — you’d adjust and make changes as necessary.”

‘It’s absolutely something that you have to be aware of’

Like Lindsey, Bernstine came to the Big Ten as a 4-star prep speedster with a 5-star ceiling. The football fates, of course, had other ideas. A shoulder injury ruined 2008; a broken ankle in 2009 turned a potential starting slot at cornerback into a redshirt year. By the time of his senior season in 2011, Bernstine was recast as a safety/return ace, averaging 7.4 tackles per contest.

NFL scouts started perking their ears a bit, and Bernstine’s workout numbers in the spring of 2012 — a 4.34 40-yard dash and a 41-inch vertical — got ’em hooked:

Washington snapped up the former Hawkeyes defensive back in the seventh round before the fates again decided to elbow in on the fun. On a kickoff during the Redskins’ 2012 regular-season opener at New Orleans, Bernstine tore the anterior, medial and posterior ligaments in his right knee, ending his rookie season in Week 1. The club released him the next July.

“After some of those injuries, I finally decided to hang up the cleats and really just developed a passion for helping young athletes,” recalls Bernstine, who opened Ground Up with partner Mike Bolio last October. “It kind of started with some young guys wanting to work out with me, do what I was doing.”

Only he started to notice that they were doing it all — well — wrong.

“I kind of found myself coaching them more than working out, certain days,” he laughs. “I just started to love it. I saw the change in these other athletes. It’s great. I love it.”

Bernstine doesn’t love talking about rhabdo, but at least he’s learned how to spot the warning signs from a distance. He’s even become something of an expert on the subject over the years, having experienced the lows — and the lower — first hand.

“It’s more [from] high-rep circuits, exhaustion from being overworked,” Bernstine says. “From the research that I’ve done, it happens in CrossFit more often.

“It’s absolutely something that you have to be aware of and have knowledge of. Which is why I’ve gained more knowledge of it on the training side of things. We’re not just winging it. You have to absolutely know how far to push athletes, how their bodies are doing, and what they need to accomplish with workouts versus just overworking athletes and throwing in heavy weights for no reason.”

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