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August 5, 2012
When Ben Habern showed up with the rest of the Oklahoma contingent at Big 12 Media Days July 23, the worries concerning his future began to fade.
Habern spent last spring in a neck brace after surgery was needed to repair vertebrae damage. He wasn't able to go through spring practice with his teammates, but he was expected back at full strength in the fall.
In July, Habern landed on the All-Big 12 first team. He made numerous national award watch lists like the Rimington Award, given to the nation's top offensive center.
The problem with all of Habern's football accolades coming before the start of his senior season, was Gabe Ikard knew something few others did - Habern's career was likely over.
Ikard and Habern have become close over the last two years. Ikard stepped in for Habern for seven games last season, after OU's starting center was lost with a broken forearm against Missouri.
In fact, Ikard joined Habern this July on that All-Big 12 first team as an offensive lineman.
Ikard and Habern worked side-by-side all summer, all the while becoming even closer. But each and every day, Ikard saw the pain Habern was going through. His neck surgery wasn't prolonging his career, it was ending it.
"A couple times during workouts, I could just see it in his eyes where he was just in pain," said Ikard who will take over Habern's role as the starting center in 2012. "It was one of those things where he'd share how he was actually feeling with me. I knew he was hurting a lot and I knew it was a discomfort all the time. He's played with injuries before. He's played with a lot of pain and I was hoping he'd be able to play again."
Habern walked into Dallas' Westin Galleria and looked like a man ready to take on the world. But when he got back home, he knew he wasn't. He knew he was going to hang up his cleats for good.
"He's one of the toughest guys I know," said Ikard. "Once he let me know he wasn't going to play, I was taken back."
Habern hasn't disappeared since the announcement was made early this week. According to Ikard, he's been almost as involved as ever.
"He's been at everything," Ikard said. "He's at practice, meetings, he's helping young guys with concepts. He's the same leader he's been, he's just not on the field with us."
The loss of Habern isn't the only heavy thing weighing on Ikard's mind heading into fall camp. As Habern's football career was coming to an end this summer, the Sooners' other backup center, Austin Woods, was battling cancer.
Woods was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma earlier this summer. Players rallied around their backup center and long snapper by reaching out to fans on Twitter in an effort to get the hashtag #BeatCancer50 trending.
It may not have put Kim Kardashian on alert, but it certainly made an impact on Woods, who hasn't missed a beat - literally.
"Woods went through all of summer workouts with cancer which is very admirable and kind of ridiculous if you think about it," said Ikard half joking and half in awe.
A media member stopped Ikard in mid-sentence to make sure he had heard him correctly.
"Every workout," boasted Ikard. "The only times he missed is when he had chemo treatments. Honestly, it was one of those things where we're going through a workout and you look to your left and you look at Austin and he's going through it and you're like, 'Man it's not that bad'. There's worse things in life than breathing hard on a Wednesday."
Woods has actually been cleared by doctors to compete this fall for the Sooners.
For Ikard, after everything he's gone through, and everything this team has gone through this summer, Woods' clearance was doubly good news. Not only is one of his best friends winning his fight with cancer, he's also getting a backup.
"I was just dreading two-a-days and I knew Ben was iffy because he shared some of his feelings with me," said Ikard. "I was ending up a center with no backup... ever. I was going to play every play all the time. He told me (the doctor's cleared him) and I was happy. I was really happy.
"He's got a great fighter's mentality and it's unbelievable the stuff he's doing for us. He's practicing with a (chemotherapy) port in his chest. He puts a pad over it, doesn't say anything about it and he's just one of those guys that's got the right attitude. He's one of my best friends so it's good to have him out there."
HAKA DANCE ON HOLD
Kasitati made headlines last season when he led the Sooners in a version of the Haka dance in preseason practices.
"It was a heart condition that, with this procedure, corrects it. It isn't life-threatening. He'll be able to continue to play," explained Stoops. "He's had it for a long time and no one ever knew it, and he didn't know it. It would flare up at times. Just leave it at a heart condition. I couldn't tell you the terms of it."
Kasitati hasn't returned to practice since the procedure, but he will be back by the end of two-a-days according to Stoops.
"I think he's only going to be out, maybe a week and then he'll be back," he said. "Give me a little break there, maybe a day or two longer or shorter. But it isn't anything that - this should correct the problem and he should be fine going forward."
ONE MORE CENTER OF ATTENTION
Gabe Ikard may have another youngster ready to step in and help relieve Austin Woods just a bit this fall. Even during Big 12 Media Days, Ben Habern was eager to talk about true freshmen offensive center Ty Darlington.
That trend continued on Saturday.
"Ty's ready to play in my opinion," said Ikard. "He's strong enough. He has great strength in the weight room and obviously he had really good coaching in high school when his dad was his coach.
"He already knows the whole playbook. He studied and watched film with us and studied everything during the summer. He's ahead of the curve by a lot. He's ahead of the curve strength wise. There's no hesitation throwing him in there in my opinion. He's smart, he's tough and he can play.
"He's one of those guys that I fully expect him to give us some depth, whether it's at center or guard. Wherever you stick him, I know he's going to do right and learn his job well - nothing but praise for Ty."