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Football: Venable reaches final home game

Dan McDonald

Three years ago, head coach Rickey Bustle was wrapping up his first season as head coach of the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajun football team and Justin Venable hobbled to midfield on crutches.

Venable, who tore a ligament in his right knee during that season, was being honored in the final home game of 2002 as one of the seniors on Bustle’s first unit.

Saturday evening, unless something awful happens between now and the 6 p.m. kickoff against Florida International, he’ll make that walk again – this time, without the crutches – to be honored as a senior playing his final regular-season home game.

“The emotions will be high,” Venable said. “I’ll probably shed a few tears with it being the last home game.”

The emotions may be high, but so will the confusion for many.

How does a player, one who walked the senior walk in 2002, turn around and do the same thing in 2005, at age 25? The numbers don’t add up. NCAA personnel would be aghast.

“I sort of figured by now I’d already have a career doing something,” Venable said. “I didn’t think I’d be playing football.”

But he is, and he’s playing a key role as the deep snapper in all UL kicking situations – ironically, the same role that his father played for four years nearly a quarter-century ago.

“But I only did it for four years,” said father Lee. “No way I’d have put up with what he’s put up with for that long. I’d have quit 50 times.”

What the younger Venable has put up with is three knee surgeries and a broken jaw, each of which effectively put him out of action for all or most of four different seasons.

Venable’s collegiate odyssey began in the spring of 1998 when he signed with the Cajuns and then-head coach Nelson Stokley out of Acadiana High, where he was one of the state’s top linebackers. But a torn ACL ligament suffered in the Louisiana High School All-Star game on July 24 sidelined him for his natural freshman season.

He played in nine games in 1999 as a freshman, but not as much as he hoped under new coach Jerry Baldwin. Then, another torn knee ligament before 2000 spring practice shelved him for that season, and the jaw injury came after limited playing time in the first two games of 2001.

Under NCAA rules, players have five years to get in four playing seasons, so Venable, Bustle and his new staff figured that 2002 was his swan song. And, wouldn’t you know … a knee injury, this time his right ACL, ended his 2002 hopes in the third game at Houston.

By the time Venable hobbled to midfield for the 2002 senior honors prior to the Arkansas State game, he’d missed 42 of a potential 56 games.

“The first four or five years I didn’t get the playing time I’d expected,” Venable said, “and it was pretty hard. There was a new staff coming in that was committed to turning the program around, and I wanted to be there when it happened.”

He applied to the NCAA for a sixth-year hardship, and incredibly didn’t get that lone year. In a rare example of NCAA fairness, he got a three-year extension on his five-year “clock.”

“It was like the start of a new life,” he said.

He worked his way back to full health in time for the 2003 season, and since then he’s launched every deep snap as part of Bustle’s prized special teams groups.

His father had done the same from 1977-80, and someone figured that Lee had 478 snaps without a bad one during his career. But he didn’t have the injury struggles that he’s watched his son go through.

“I can’t tell you how proud I am of that kid,” he said. “The way he’s hung in there, not too many players would have done that. I told him when he first signed to play college to be ready to experience the best four years of his life, and I didn’t know that it would take four years for that to start.”

The younger Venable’s probably close to that snap total, and there haven’t been many bad ones over the last three years.

“My dad and I did it in the back yard,” Justin said. “He always told me that was something I could always fall back on. That’s where I learned the basics, and having guys like Coach Bustle, Coach (Troy) Wingerter, Coach (Brian) Jenkins and Bill Delahoussaye (former UL snapper now on injured reserve with the Miami Dolphins) have helped me fine-tune it.”

His consistency is such that UL fans take solid deep snaps for granted. So does his dad, but that doesn’t mean he’s not paying attention.

“I focus on him every snap,” Lee said. “But I’m so confident he’s going to do a good job, with all the experience he has, I’m not concerned about it at all. He knows when he gets over the ball, it’s going to be a good snap.”

It should be. He’s had enough experience. And, with two more wins and a little luck, Venable could end what has to be the longest football career in Division I history with a home-field bowl appearance.

“That would be kind of fitting,” he said. “But we’ll see. First, I have to play like Saturday’s my last game.”

Originally published November 10, 2005