QB Gronowski goes from torn ACL to another FCS title shot

South Dakota State quarterback Mark Gronowski (11) throws a pass during the first half against Iowa, Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, in Iowa City, Iowa. Nearly 20 months after tearing the ACL in his left knee on a 3-yard run, and then missing the rest of that game and all of the normal 2021 fall season that quickly followed, Gronowski gets another title shot Sunday when the Jackrabbits play Missouri Valley Football Conference rival and perennial FCS champion North Dakota State. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, Fiel)

FRISCO, Texas (AP) — South Dakota State quarterback Mark Gronowski thought he had just twisted his ankle on the opening series of an unusual FCS title game two springs ago. It turned out to be much worse than that.

Nearly 20 months after tearing the ACL in his left knee on a 3-yard run, and then missing the 2021 fall season that quickly followed, Gronowski is back in North Texas for another title shot. The Jackrabbits play Missouri Valley Football Conference rival and perennial Football Championship Subdivision champion North Dakota State on Sunday.

“Most people only get one chance to play in a national championship, if ever. Just to have the second opportunity and get a kind of chance to redeem myself and redeem the entire team, it’s a blessing,” Gronowski said Friday from a room overlooking the field where he got hurt in May 2021. “I just remember walking in the first time, just being like ‘Wow,’ like I’m excited for this moment and I can’t wait to be in this game. And that’s kind of the feeling I have again right now.”

The Jackrabbits (13-1) have won 13 in a row since a 7-3 loss at Big Ten team Iowa to open this season. That streak includes a 23-21 comeback win at defending champ North Dakota State in October — the same score of South Dakota State’s title game loss to Sam Houston State, which blew a 10-point lead before its winning touchdown with 16 seconds left.

Gronowski was a true freshman during that pandemic-affected season when South Dakota State and veteran coach John Stiegelmeier made their first FCS title game. After the quarterback’s 3-yard keeper on the first play and a 16-yard pass, he got hurt in a pile at the end of another 3-yard run before a third-down incompletion on his last snap.

In what is now his sophomore season, Gronowski has thrown for 2,743 yards and 23 touchdowns with only five interceptions. He also has 11 rushing scores.

“Mark’s comeback and his contribution to our football team is far greater than what you see on the field or in the stats. He’s our best leader,” said Stiegelmeier, in his 26th season at his alma mater.

“The level of respect the guys have for him is unmatched,” senior left guard Mason McCormick said. “It means the world to all of us that he’s back here.”

Gronowski had surgery the week after the title game, then spent about six weeks at home in Illinois before returning to campus in Brookings, South Dakota. He described the long journey coming back as a strenuous process that got monotonous at times. With the help of trainer Charlie Miller, he focused on each progressing goal, from walking again, to running, then cutting and throwing.

When Gronowski returned for this season’s opener at Iowa. McCormick felt everybody “was holding their breath” before the first time the quarterback got hit.

“What I see now in January than what I saw in October, I see a young man who looks to be much more healthy,” said North Dakota State coach Matt Entz, whose team’s third consecutive loss to the Jackrabbits was at home in mid-October. “I’m sure they weren’t necessarily wanting to get him involved into the quarterback run game as much as they have of late.”

Even though he couldn’t play last season, Gronowski was still fully involved with the team. He got a different perspective wearing a headset on the sideline and signaling in offensive plays.

“That was really exciting for me, just because I got to be around everyone and still got to be a leader on the sidelines and kind of learn from the coaches on what they think,” he said. “That has really helped me this season with pre-snap plans and kind of understanding defenses a little bit more.”

None of that surprised his teammates or coaches. Stiegelmeier said the quarterback was already the team’s best leader even before playing his first game.

“In the fall when we were stumbling around practicing … I had players coming into my office saying, Mark’s got to be our starting quarterback,” Stiegelmeier said.

The quarterback who has now made it to FCS title games in both seasons he has played.