The really long road back to the court

Isaiah Ihnen (left) and Parker Fox
Roommates Isaiah Ihnen (left) and Parker Fox have persevered through back-to-back seasons lost to injury.

Midway through the first half of the Gopher men’s basketball game against New Orleans on Nov. 30, Parker Fox took a pass from a teammate at midcourt with no one between him and the basket. Six long strides later, he hammered down a two-handed dunk, hung on the rim long enough to raise his legs up to the base of the backboard, then, when he landed, raised his arms in an obvious burst of emotion. 

It was a mini celebration two and a half years in the making. Fox, a redshirt senior from Mahtomedi, MN, who transferred to the U from Northern State (South Dakota), had a season-ending knee injury before he could play a single game for the Gophers in the 2021-22 season. The same thing happened to him the following summer.

It gets stranger.

Virtually the same fate befell Fox’s teammate and roommate, Isaiah Ihnen. For Ihnen, a redshirt junior from Boeblingen, Germany: two season-ending injuries in the offseason; two entire seasons lost. 

Both Ihnen and Fox love the game, and both have aspirations to play professionally after their time with the Gophers. So the injuries were somewhere between disheartening and devastating. 

“This won’t define me. I will come back from this. It will only make my story greater.” —Isaiah Ihnen

“When I went down the second time, I knew [the severity of the injury] right away,” says Fox. “I think the biggest emotion was just disbelief. I couldn’t believe I had to go through [the rehab] again.” He had told people after his first injury that he would never do that, so it took a while to come to grips with another surgery. 

But, he says, “You don’t want to feel too bad for yourself. I remember saying to Coach Johnson, ‘I’m going to eventually play for you.’ Just his confidence in that work he knew we could put in was huge.”

Ihnen’s second ACL tear happened just a couple weeks after Fox’s injury, and eerily enough, his trainer had just asked him if he felt he might reinjure his knee. Ihnen didn’t; he felt confident. 

“It ended up not playing out the way I wanted,” he says. “I also knew right away I was hurt—the same injury again. The first thought for me was disbelief, and then also just the dread, I would say, of having to go through the same thing all over again.” 

But instead of getting surgery right away, Ihnen took his time and went home to spend time with his family and reflect in Germany. “For a time, I started thinking, ‘How many people really make it on a professional level after having torn their ACL twice?’ There’s that doubt that starts creeping in.” 

But his friends assured him that one of his best traits was his unwavering belief in himself. “That just kind of gave me a second wind, and it helped me attain a different level of focus compared to the year before, which helped the rehab the second time around.”

For Ihnen, the first three weeks were the toughest on him mentally, when he had the most doubts. Then he thought: “This won’t define me. I will come back from this. It will only make my story greater.”

During Fox’s rehab, he realized he was struggling with his mental health. In part to process his feelings, he started a podcast called Double Down, with interviews of high-level athletes who at one point in their career suffered an injury or injuries that kept them out of the sport they love. The podcast has featured current or former Gopher athletes including Eric Curry (men’s basketball), Chris Autman-Bell (football), Taylor Landfair (volleyball), and former Purdue and Timberwolves player Robbie Hummel. The podcast helped him to discover more answers for and about himself. 

While both athletes rehabbed and hoped for another chance, they furthered their education substantially. Fox obtained a master’s degree in sports management and is taking classes in strategic management at the Carlson School of Management. Ihnen received his bachelor’s degree earlier this year and is pursuing a master’s in sports management. 

As both returned to full strength and were cleared to play, the excitement grew.

“I always dreamed of playing D-1 basketball, and it was always a dream to play here at the U of M,” Fox says. “There were days when it didn’t feel like it was going to happen, so it became even more surreal when it was actually approaching and coming closer.”

Back on the raised court in The Barn

Back to full health and now fully involved with the teammates they’d been cheering more than banging elbows with, both players talked about the bubbling and eruption of their emotions. 

Ihnen started in the exhibition game against Macalester on Nov. 2, and was clustered with the other four starters in the tunnel until his name was called out in introductions. 

“I remember thinking, ‘Yeah, this will just be a regular moment for me.’ But then once I was down there I couldn’t stop cheesing; I had the biggest smile on my face,” he says. “I was trying just to be focused and have a game face, but I couldn’t hold it. Just being able to be out there playing again, right? Nothing compares to that. That’s what you work for—all the rehab for two years. To finally be there in that moment, that was huge. It’s like all the weight of the world falls off your shoulders.”

Fox recalls entering the game and hearing the applause from the crowd when he was introduced—people who had never seen him play but apparently knew the painful backstory. 

“I just remember subbing into the game and the ball was down toward the family section, and just looking up at my family, and seeing my mom and dad, and almost crying. I had a lot of emotions,” Fox says. “Also, just allowing myself to feel those emotions and realizing that it’s so much bigger than basketball. Those are the people that are always going to be there for me. … But also, feeling the love from the community.”

Through the first 11 games, both players are contributing significantly to a team that last year was lacking the depth that they now provide. Ihnen has started seven games and is averaging 6.4 points a game. Fox has come off the bench to supply 4.4 points a game and a field-goal percentage near 80 percent, thanks to a glut of dunks.

And some long-anticipated dunks, like the breakaway play against New Orleans, call for an exclamation point.