ORONO, Maine — Kris Enslen is on borrowed time when it comes to football.
His left knee has been surgically repaired twice after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament.
This week, the University of Maine senior hopes to make it through his fifth consecutive game, a feat he has accomplished only once in four seasons.
“The doctor said, ‘You’re capable of playing. It won’t be comfortable, but you can still do it,’” Enslen said of his return in 2012. “I didn’t want to walk away from the sport I’d been playing my whole life.”
He will have extra motivation Saturday when coach Jack Cosgrove’s Black Bears travel to Enslen’s home state of Delaware for a 3:30 p.m. Colonial Athletic Association game against the Blue Hens.
“It’s pretty cool to play there, considering I played high school football a couple miles down the road,” said Enslen, who attended Caravel Academy in Bear, Del. “I have a lot of family coming to the game and a lot of old friends.”
Enslen, who has been part of the Black Bears’ defensive line rotation this fall, has been in on eight tackles, including a sack. Despite lingering knee issues, he is doing whatever he can to contribute.
“I think it’s a huge credit to him to persevere through the injuries, to work, to drive himself, to rehabilitate himself to get back to play a very physical game,” Cosgrove said.
“Kris has really fought and fought and fought,” he added.
Enslen realizes he is fortunate to be playing at all.
“Coming back to this [preseason] camp, I was ready to play but I wasn’t sure how my knee would hold up,” Enslen said. “There were a couple times during camp where I actually thought about retiring.”
After speaking with a lot of people, including some friends whose careers had been cut short by injury, he decided to continue.
“He’s had perhaps as many reps in rehab and treatment as he has had on the field,” Cosgrove said.
Enslen, who is 6-foot-5 and has bulked up to 265 pounds, has moved from end to defensive tackle. It is a new challenge.
“At tackle, you can get double-teamed any play,” he offered. “There’s a big guy outside of you and a big guy inside of you. It’s a totally different mindset.”
Cosgrove explained that Enslen, because of his physical limitations, has become a specialist who plays primarily in UMaine’s third-down package. He is on the field for 25-30 plays, but still has an impact.
“He brings a lot to that role with his toughness and his athleticism,” Cosgrove said. “Kris plays with an emotional toughness, head to toe. It’s recognizable every Saturday.”
UMaine’s coaches and trainers have done everything possible to keep Enslen on two feet. That includes limiting his participation during practice.
“They understand that you’ve got to practice but, at the end of the day, we want you to play on Saturday,” Enslen said.
Enslen was a late addition to UMaine’s 2008 recruiting class. In addition to football he wrestled and was an accomplished 110-meter hurdler (at about 220 pounds).
He was being recruited for football, mostly as a walk-on, but the Black Bears saw potential and offered him a sizeable scholarship.
Enslen earned a spot in the defensive end rotation as a redshirt freshman in 2009. He was already playing through a shoulder injury suffered during preseason when he tore his ACL in the fifth game of the season.
That was three years ago on Wednesday.
He said the first time wasn’t so bad, especially since teammates and roommates Jeff Falvey and Warren Smith also wound up injured and having surgery that season.
“We were always together, crutching around campus together,” Enslen said. “It was kind of funny and embarrassing.”
Enslen worked his way back after surgery and returned in 2010 to play 10 games, matching his career high with 25 tackles.
The following spring, he tore his ACL for a second time, the first such recurrence for the doctor who had performed the surgery, Enslen said.
“It’s the sport of football. We all know the risks,” he said.
That left Enslen back on the shelf, but he gradually got healthy again. He received medical clearance to play prior to the 2011 regular-season finale at New Hampshire.
He credited his parents, Jim and Peggy Enslen, along with his coaches and teammates, for helping him make it through the rehabilitation a second time.
“The mental part of injuries is way worse than the physical part,” Enslen said. “It was a struggle.”
Enslen finally played in the season-ending Football Championship Subdivision playoff game at Georgia Southern.
“I think I got nine reps [plays] in there. It was cool to be in that atmosphere, at that stadium,” Enslen said.