The tears welling up in his eyes had nothing to do with the physical pain. Joe Protheroe thought his dream had been shattered in an instant.
Countless college football players harbor NFL aspirations. Protheroe is no different in his desire to play football at the highest level. But his motivation is different than most his age.
The 24-year-old is married to Ashley Protheroe. The couple has three daughters — Jolene recently turned four, Jordan is about to be two and Joelle is almost two months old.
On the ninth carry of the second game of Protheroe’s senior season against San Jose State in 2017, the Cal Poly fullback took an awkward hit from one of the Spartans’ interior defensive linemen. He heard a pop and felt his right knee give out. The All-American workhorse played the next snap but felt no stability.
The following week, an MRI revealed a grade three MCL tear. Before doctors confirmed the season-ending injury, Protheroe knew his campaign was finished.
“Thinking of not being able to play another year, I was on the sideline of the San Jose State game trying to be real supportive of the team but I was crying the whole game,” Protheroe said.
“The biggest challenge for me was dealing with the unknown. Instantly, I thought in my head all my dreams are shattered once I felt that pop in my knee. I had a lot of recognition, Walter Payton Award list, everybody coming by, NFL scouts at camp. I just thought to myself that I was going to have a good shot at getting an opportunity to go play at that next level. When I got hurt, that all flashed before my eyes.”
Protheroe entered last season as one of the headliners in the Big Sky Conference and the Football Championship Subdivision. As a sophomore, he rushed for 779 yards and six touchdowns to earn first-team All-Big Sky honors in his first year as a starter despite making just seven starts.
As a junior in 2016, Protheroe earned first-team All-American honors after leading the Big Sky with 1,334 yards and 13 touchdowns as the battering ram in Cal Poly’s triple option offense. More than a traditional dive fullback, the 5-foot-11, 230-pound former high school tailback showed an ability to break into the second level, make defenders miss and run over the ones that didn’t.
He entered what would be his senior year with 2,461 yards rushing and preseason accolades from every corner of the FCS. After notching a career-high 39 carries against Colgate, one play against SJSU made Protheroe believe it was all over.
Then Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh informed Protheroe he had another year of eligibility.
In the fall of 2012, Protheroe was the third-leading rusher in the state of California. As a senior at Clayton Valley Charter High in Concord, he rushed for a school-record 3,014 yards and 34 touchdowns, averaging 215.3 yards per game and scoring 222 total points. He piled up more than 100 yards in all 14 games and surpassed 200 yards seven times, leading the Eagles to a 12-2 record, a league championship and the CIF-North Coast Section Division II championship.
Despite having outings of 427 yards and five touchdowns and 306 yards and three touchdowns, leading to Offensive Player of the Year honors from almost every newspaper in the Bay Area, Protheroe received offers from just Cal Poly and Sacramento State.
He signed his National Letter of Intent in February of 2013 but chose to grayshirt. He did not enroll in school until January of 2014 and did not join the Mustangs until that August for fall camp, delaying the start of his five-year clock.
Because of the grayshirt and the limited action last season, Protheroe earned a hardship waiver, granting him a fifth year of eligibility this fall.
“At first, I was mad, thought God was punishing me for something and I didn’t know why,” Protheroe said. “But then the way I looked at it was God gave me another whole year to train to make me better than I could have been.”
Initially, Protheroe admitted it was “hard to even get out of bed”. He said he was depressed. Ashley said he did not seem like himself. While he was stuck “being a couch bum” waiting for clearance to start rehabbing his lower body and start running, he researched other running backs who suffered torn ligaments in their knees and came back successfully.
“I was looking at all those stories, guys who hurt their knees,” Protheroe said. “I’m not going to compare myself to Adrian Peterson, the greatest. But it was really motivating. (Cleveland Browns) Nick Chubb tore his whole knee up (in college at Georgia), came back. (Los Angeles Rams) Todd Gurley, other guys who did it. It was hard on me. I would get interviews by guys at my school and they would say, ‘Do you think I’ll be the same running back?’ I would just tell them I was going to be a better running back and I really believed that.”
Walsh, Cal Poly’s tough-minded 10th-year head coach, has advocated for Protheroe’s fortitude and diverse running ability for the duration of his standout pupil’s career. This off-season, he witnessed a man possessed.
“You can just see his determination to be the best,” Walsh said. “What he did for rehabilitation, what he did in the weight room in the off-season and the condition he’s in…he’s a tremendous player and athlete and a guy you love to watch play the game on a daily basis.”
During his time on the sideline last season, Protheroe had to watch a team that made the FCS playoffs in 2016 limp to a 1-10 finish. He felt guilty and disappointed that he could not help help the class he came in with finish in a more respectable fashion.
Those team struggles combined with his responsibility to the four girls in his life helped Protheroe enter this season in the finest physical condition of his life. He is 227 pounds and says he is as fast, quick and strong as he has ever been.
“As much as he loves the game, he loves his family,” Walsh said. “Between school and football and three children, put yourself at 24 years old playing Division I college football and going to a school as competitive as this one is academically and then having three children he has a lot of stuff on his plate for a young person.
“You can tell his motivation is his family. He wants to do the best he can to make sure he gets a degree and to make sure he gets an opportunity to continue to play. He’s one of those guys that you coach that is way, way different than 99.9 percent of college athletes across the country because of his situation.”
So far this season, Protheroe’s conditioning has been tested as his workload has continued building. Defending national champion North Dakota State’s stout defense held him to 57 yards on 14 carries in NDSU’s 49-3 win over the Mustangs to open the season.
In a non-conference game against Big Sky rival Weber State, Protheroe rushed for 60 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries in a 24-17 loss. The following week, the Mustangs rode their stallion to their first win as Protheroe notched career highs of 43 carries, 228 yards and three touchdowns in a 44-15 win over Brown.
“We all profess that we love the game and a lot of players profess they love the game. Joe Protheroe loves the game of football,” Walsh said. “He loves the physicality of the game of football. He was committed to being bigger, stronger and faster when the injury happened last year and somehow, he succeeded.
“He is as physical of a player with the ball in his hands as I have ever coached. He’s a tough guy to tackle. When you do, you are going to get all of him, I’ll tell you that much. That’s what makes him so good.”
Last week, Protheroe rushed for 176 yards on 34 carries before leaving the game in the third quarter of a 70-17 lopsided loss at Eastern Washington. This week, Cal Poly will try to bounce back against No. 17 Montana in San Luis Obispo.
“He’s big and fast,” Montana head coach Bobby Hauck said. “He sees things well. He really does a nice job of getting to the right spot, seeing the blocking scheme and he runs through contact. You watch him throwing DBs down when he gets to the secondary. He’s a big, physical running back.”
When NFL scouts come to Cal Poly’s campus, the two questions they always ask Walsh two questions: is Protheroe fast enough to play running back in the NFL? And if he’s not, how big can he get?
At a chiseled 227 pounds, Protheroe is a physical specimen but his frame does not seem like it has much more room to add mass. If that’s what it will take for Protheroe to move on to the next level, Walsh is convinced Protheroe will do it well.
“And he’s certainly tough enough to play fullback in the NFL,” Walsh said.
Although Cal Poly’s offense “puts him on track” with its dive principles, Protheroe’s tailback background and his open-field ability could earn him a shot as a short-yardage specialist in the pros. Walsh has said for three years that he’s “more instinctive and elusive than people think.”
Using his uncommon life circumstance as motivation to bounce back from the devastation of dreams almost dashed, Protheroe has now put himself in a position to once again chase his ultimate goal. His next challenge comes Saturday against the Griz.
“If you can fight through adversity, I feel good things will come,” Protheroe said. “I believe that now more than ever. If you keep fighting, good things will always happen to you.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez and contributed. All Rights Reserved.