Craig Merkle, a running back at Montclair State University’s football team, lives and breathes football. It’s in his DNA. Scoring touchdowns and running past guys is what he loves, so being away from the sport, in the sideline, is dreadful to say the least. Injuries are something that naturally come with playing sports, especially a sport as physical as football. The thing about injuries is that they come when a player least expects it. It can happen in a player’s comeback game after being sidelined for months or it can happen in the middle of a great season. The latter is Merkle’s case.
Merkle, a junior business management major, entered Montclair State’s football program after previously attending Wagner College, a private, national liberal arts college in Staten Island, and playing D1 football there. However, Merkle was unable to play football with the Red Hawks’ football team due to two torn ligaments in his left ankle, suffered in the summer of 2017 in a yearly scrimmage against Lackawanna. The injury was born from an inside zone play in which a safety came on a free blitz and caught Merkle as he received the ball. The impact of the tackle was robust, causing Merkle to twist his ankle and preventing him from making his debut with his new team. Merkle, a running back who has been playing football since the third grade, says that he probably could’ve came back during the fifth or sixth week of the 2017 season but that by that point he was advised to take medical and rest for the remainder of the season. “It sucked, but it is what it is, it’s the game of football,” said Merkle.
The 220-pound Nutley native says that football has always been in the family, from his father playing to his two brothers playing so, in a way, it only made sense that he did too. “Both of my brothers were big motivations for me,” said Merkle, who admits that watching his brothers play high school football only made him love the sport even more. “My oldest brother was always a big star in high school, like growing up I always watched him and then I watched my middle brother go through high school–he was a big name guy. It was just watching them–I loved it.”
Merkle, 21, following his brothers footsteps, played high school football at Nutley high school for all four years–years in which injuries were never a problem. “Ever since high school, not that I was the guy, but I played and I never really got hurt.”
Though missing a full football season at Montclair State, Merkle was determined to turn his setback into a comeback and worked tirelessly to do so, spending long hours at the gym and working out with his fellow running backs, despite working a full time job. “I worked as hard as I could all summer long. I worked a full time job like 50 hours a week, but other than that I was still working out,” said Merkle.
The first game of the Montclair State 2018 football season was more than just Merkle’s first game as a Red Hawk, it was his return to the field, a testament that all his hard work had paid off. Montclair State went on to defeat Salve Regina, 37-14, in their season opener with Merkle scoring two touchdowns, proving that he was back where he belonged, in his natural habitat–the football field.
Merkle would then go on to put on dominant performances, scoring six touchdowns in seven games, leading Montclair State in rushing yards (486), and helping Montclair State win their first five consecutive games. “I have to give it to the line, I can’t do anything without them, and they definitely did a lot for me,” said a humble Merkle, who says that the team is “like a brotherhood, like a family.”
“He is a very versatile player, he’s a very smart player, and obviously he’s a very tough player to bring down as the game goes on.” – Offensive coordinator Steve Sciarappa.
Merkle’s style of play is described as a “battering ram” by Montclair State football head coach Rick Giancola. “He’ll run into the wall if you tell him to,” said Giancola, who has been in front of the Montclair State football program for 36 years. Giancola, a veteran of the sport, has seen many talented players throughout his years leading the program, amongst them linebacker Sam Mills, and acknowledges that in football proving you’re the tougher guy often means getting “beat up.” “He (Merkle) charges through and if a guy’s going to try to tackle him, he’ll try to run them over, and there’s a good and a bad to that: the bad part is you get beat up a little bit, your body wears out a little bit.”
Unfortunately, for the second time in his college football career, Merkle once again saw himself sidelined after sustaining a horrible injury in Montclair State’s, 24-17, home defeat to Frostburg State University on Saturday, Oct. 20. Merkle suffered a grade three tear in his MCL after a Frostburg player tried to tackle him, hanging on to his leg and putting his entire weight on Merkle’s knee. In that same game, Merkle also suffered a fractured rib after taking a hit to the chest in what ended up being a bad game for the team as well as himself. Despite the gruesome pain, Merkle continued in the game, showing his “battering ram” resilience. “I ended up finishing the whole game, I just came out, got taped up, said ‘Screw it, I’m going to go back in, like I got to finish it, I got to finish it,’ and unfortunately we lost but yeah, when the MRI came back it was a grade three tear in my MCL so right now they (doctors) said I don’t need surgery but we’ll see what goes on.”
Minutes after attending a rehab session at Panzer Athletic Center, Merkle, in crutches, is calm as he’s been down this road before and knows exactly what he needs to do to get back on the field. “I did everything I could to come back this year and have a good season,” said Merkle as he heads to the Feliciano School of Business for an evening class. “Unfortunately, my injury now it sucks, but I’m happy with what I did. I’m happy with how I played.”
As for now, Merkle is getting treatment two to three times a day, but his grind hasn’t stopped. “I’m still working out my upper body but since I’m in this brace to keep my leg straight, they don’t want me bending it at all,” said Merkle. Six to ten weeks of healing process is the time Merkle was given by doctors, but the 6’0 running back hopes it’s quicker.
A battering ram is a heavy object that is swung or rammed against a door to break it down, and this is exactly what Merkle must do again–knock down the obstacle that prevents him from entering his home, the football field.
Cristian Inga is a senior at Montclair State University enrolled in the School of Communication of Media. Inga is majoring in Television and Digital Media with a concentration in Sports Media and Journalism, and is expected to graduate in May 2019. Among Inga’s interests are the world of sports, particularly soccer and boxing, along with pop culture, mainly the music industry. Inga is contributing writer of the school newspaper, The Montclarion, and hopes to work as an on-air talent for a sports network upon graduation.