The pain is almost worse after surgery. Before that ligament that was broken gets fixed and your knee swells up beyond recognition, you can actually put pressure on your leg. You can somewhat move. After surgery, though, that’s the tough part. You need help using the restroom. Walking five minutes to class now takes you 10. You become dependent on those around you.
Forget football for a while.
Tearing your ACL sucks. Being on a shelf for seven months sucks. Just imagine having to go through it twice.
“It felt like a spell at first,” said JoJo Domann, a redshirt sophomore outside linebacker for the Huskers. “When it happened the second time, I felt like I was stuck, I was stuck in this phase in my life that I felt like was never gonna end.”
Domann played eight games during his true freshman season. He looked like someone who could become a major contributor for the Blackshirts in time. In the run-up to his sophomore year, the first ACL tear happened. Surgery was set for April 12, 2017. Domann attacked rehab and was cleared for non-contact activities that November. Then the second tear happened in a pickup basketball game just days later. His second surgery was set for Nov. 6, 2017.
A new coaching staff came to Lincoln and Domann was left in the dark. For a time, he didn’t think they knew his name. He didn’t hold it against defensive backs coach Travis Fisher or defensive coordinator Erik Chinander, he couldn’t bring anything to the table.
He missed winter workouts then spring ball. For over a year, he’d been without the thing he’d grown up loving. There are times during that recovery your mind slips into a dark place. You start to question if the comeback is possible or even worth it. It’s undeniably more mental than physical.
“It’s a whole other level of, like, ‘What am I here for?’” Domann says.
This season has given him his answer.
On his wrist, JoJo Domann has a tattoo. It’s bold and bare for everyone to see. “I didn’t want to hide it,” he says. “This is who I am. My identity is in this right here. Why hide it?”
There’s a cross in front of a mountain skyline (Domann’s from Colorado Springs, Colorado) with a crown of thorns sitting atop it. At the base of the cross, where his foreman meets his hand there’s a script “Mathews 18:18.” Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven.
Domann turned to faith after that second tear. His roommate and one of his closest friends, corner Ethan Cox, says religion plays a big role in their lives. He volunteers his time at local hospitals visiting kids. He takes part in the Nebraska Football Road Race. During the winter months, Domann would go to team workouts not for himself, but to make Cox better.
“Even in spring ball when he couldn’t go, he was kind of living vicariously through me,” Cox said.
“I had to dig deep,” Domann says. “I was definitely at a low point in my life. I honestly didn't really know which way to turn and I turned to the man upstairs and leaned on him and He delivered.”
Two Saturdays ago, in the Horseshoe against a top-10 Ohio State team, Domann started at outside linebacker and played more snaps than he’s ever played for Nebraska. He had a game-changing play in the second quarter when the Buckeye offensive line blocked down, Domann disguised a zone pressure blitz well enough to earn him a free shot at quarterback Dwayne Haskins and he hit him so hard the ball popped loose.
That was preparation and a pretty convincing man alignment in the slot, yes, but it was something else to Domann, too. “On Saturday I think He showed that He's been with me this whole process.”
Because there were times when that was questioned. On July 8, 2017, Bob Elliott passed away. Hired in February of that same year to coach safeties for the Huskers, Elliot and Domann quickly formed a bond. When asked him which coach helped him through rehab the most, Domann answered without hesitation.
“When he was here, when I went through that spring ball and I was doing really well and then I tore it and then he passed a couple months later, that hit home for me,” Domann said. “He had a track record where he had respect behind his name and he, for whatever reason, he just believed in me and he always told me, ‘I see it in you, you can do it.’
“That was the last thing on my mind. I’m waking up every day saying I can’t do this, and for him to say that I could… That was definitely a special person in my life that made an impact in the short time we were together.”
Domann wasn’t able to make the funeral service, but the day after Elliot passed, he started that tattoo. As Domann has gone through things, he’s added. The mountains and the crown of thorns have come later. The whole thing is sort of a reminder. This is what it has all been for.
When fall camp opened this season, the now-hybrid safety let it loose.
“I was playing like we were playing Ohio State every day in practice, just absolutely loving it and trying to show the coaches that I’m a ball player, that I’m not one of those guys they’re going to want to get out of here,” he said. “You know what I’m saying? Because a lot of guys have been getting in and out. I’m one of those guys that was a huge question mark, so I was trying to prove that I belong and that I want to be a pivotal part of this program and this team in 2018, 2019, 2020. I felt like I had a lot to prove.”
He played against Colorado in the season-opener on Sept. 8 but an injury forced him back to the sidelines. He wouldn’t see the field again until Oct. 13 when the team traveled to Northwestern. That injury hasn’t ever been made public; it wasn’t his knee again, but it was brutal to go through. It felt like that spell was back.
It would only be human nature for doubt to creep back in. Maybe a fresh start was needed. At the time, players were leaving the program seemingly every week.
“Even if you love something, sometimes your thoughts wander,” Domann said. “But I remember when they did, I got back to what I overcame and why.
“I didn’t overcome two ACL surgeries to go play somewhere else. I did it here and I think I owed it to myself to step up to the big plate and do it for Nebraska. Not take the easy way out. The easy way out would have been to leave. Everyone was leaving. I definitely wanted to prove to myself and the guys that were with me during that low time in my life that I want to play here, that I can make an impact here.”
Johansen Domann was too long to shout across a soccer pitch, so when he was “yay big, three or four,” JoJo was born. Too many syllables, he says with a laugh, so JoJo stuck. Domann played club soccer, played indoor and loved 3v3 tournaments. On the other football field, he’s a right mid. On the gridiron, there’s no position.
Which position do you like best?
“I don’t have one.”
So you’re just JoJo Domann, football player?
“There you go.”
When Chinander came to him almost three weeks ago with an idea of transitioning him from a safety to more of a nickel outside linebacker, there wasn’t even a conversation.
“We told him where we were going to put him and he was great with it,” Chinander said.
When Domann showed up on the depth chart for Bethune-Cookman as the co-No. 2 outside linebacker, the media made a big deal out of what was thought to be a position change. Head coach Scott Frost cautioned it wasn’t so much a change as a guy filling a need. Domann didn’t think twice because it represented a way for him to make up lost time.
“At the time, I hadn’t done anything so for me it was just kinda whatever. I hadn’t done anything. Yeah, I moved positions, but I haven’t proven myself,” he said. “I’m just going to do whatever’s asked of me. If that’s at safety, if that’s at outside backer, if that’s at nose guard, I’m there. That’s my mindset.”
Both Fisher and outside linebackers coach Jovan Dewitt laugh a little at the thought of fighting for who gets Domann in their room. Domann himself jokes that Chinander has the final say so in that. But his cross-training lends some versatility to both coaches.
Domann’s physicality lends itself to that dog mentality Fisher wants from his defensive backs, while this vision he has developed as a safety gives him a pretty unique perspective at outside backer. Former Blackshirt Nate Gerry made the same move when he jumped from college to the Philadelphia Eagles. Dewitt says those guys just see things differently.
“He’s a really sharp guy, in terms of learning and being able to adjust,” Dewitt said. “He’s got a little more field vision than you might think. Routes that sometimes are really hard for a linebacker to see and process, he just understands right now because he’s seeing from a different vantage point.”
Dewitt says they’ve still got to get the “DB” out of Domann a little bit, but the 6-foot-1, 225-pounder is plenty physical. Domann watched the film on his Ohio State performance and thought that forced fumble probably could have just been a strip, recovery and return. But he likes hitting people, so oh well.
“That traces back to peewee backyard football with my brother, just straight out just knocking the crap out of each other,” he said. “I'm going to try to hit you as hard as I can or I'm going to try to get the ball from you.”
Frost was just happy to see him make a play.
“I told JoJo today the best thing that he did on Saturday, he just made plays,” the head coach said the Monday after the game. “He’s been through a lot. … Life doesn’t give you that many chances and when you get them you have to take advantage of them. Given his chance he’s done a great job so expect to see him on the field a bunch.”
The year they went and played the Steelers in the Super Bowl, Domann went to Flagstaff, Arizona, to visit the Arizona Cardinals’ training camp. His father, Craig, has been an NFL agent since Domann was little and one of his players, cornerback Eric Green, plays corner for the Cardinals, so JoJo tags along to get some insider access.
Green takes Domann under his arm, literally, and walks him around to meet some of the guys on the team. Green introduces him to wideouts Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin and quarterbacks Matt Leinart and Kurt Warner, among others. (Funny thing is Domann never met Kurt’s son, Kade, until the two both got to Nebraska. “Small world,” Domann says.)
Domann says that’s probably his fondest football memory, but the collection is vast. He’s been to plenty of NFL games, been inside countless locker rooms, been to training camps and even volunteered to help run a nonprofit youth football camp in his hometown back in Colorado.
He knows Eric Warfield, too. Warfield, a former Husker and Kansas City Chief defensive back, tweeted congrats to Domann during the Ohio State game. Warfield was also one of Domann’s father’s clients. When Domann was in the fifth grade, Warfield was the one that gave him one of his first “tours” of Nebraska’s football facilities.
“That's actually when I was like, ‘Man, there's something special about this place,’” Domann remembers.
Fast forward to now and Domann has a chance to be special in his own right. Against Illinois, he had a fumble recovery. Safety Tre Neal forced a ball out and Domann was around the football and ready to react.
“He’s starting to catch up to the speed of the game,” Cox says of the guy who has become like a brother. “He’s finally out there getting in his groove.”
The knee stuff is in the past. That pain is in the past. This is what Domann is here for.
“Football is in my blood,” he says. “I was born to play football at the University of Nebraska. That's why I'm here.”