INDIANAPOLIS – There was nothing about 2011 that was normal for Ben Ijalana in terms of his football career.
After ending a prep career in New Jersey, he was a four-year starter at Villanova, never missing a game at left tackle in 53 opportunities.
So distinguished was his career that Ijalana was one of four Villanova players ever to earn All-America honors in multiple seasons.
His body of work landed him on the radar screens of many NFL teams, and Indianapolis made him the 49th pick overall in the 2011 draft. Ijalana was tabbed 27 spots behind Anthony Castonzo, the Colts' first-round pick, and the pair was envisioned to play prominent roles on the line as quickly as possible.
The months leading into the season were jumbled with labor unrest, and a late-July resolution meant first meetings literally would be held as training camps opened. For Ijalana and most rookies, NFL life came at them hard.
"It was different and unexpected. We had a couple of (spring) workouts that were called together," said Ijalana. "I just hung around and lifted with some of the linemen. Once the lockout lifted, it was a blitzkrieg, everything happened rapidly. Boom, you're in Anderson (at training camp). Boom, it was plays after plays, assignments after assignments. You were in full-tilt football, where you were meeting your coaches and being a member of the team for the first time.
"It was a learning process to be around the veterans. I worked out with Jeff Linkenbach and Joe Reitz and Jacques McClendon and they helped, but they were first- or second-year players themselves and there was no preparation for the storm, no umbrella for the weather."
Ijalana worked as hard as possible in training camp, learning nuances at every turn. He did everything he could to play an immediate role in the club's plans, but the regular season opened with him participating on special teams during the first three games.
Game four at Tampa Bay linked Ijalana even more with Castonzo, but not in a good way. Castonzo hurt an ankle against the Buccaneers, opening the door for Ijalana. A few plays into action, Ijalana hurt his knee. It did not just end his night, it ended Ijalana's season.
"I was never hurt in college and there was nothing until then," said Ijalana. "It's crazy. It teaches you the value of, 'It's one play. Things go quickly.' My leg tangled with a defensive tackle and that's how it happened. It was real rough (emotionally). I wasn't able to win a starting position at the time (of the injury). We were big on 'Next Man Up,' and I was the sixth man. I was the next guy. When I went in (when Castonzo was hurt), it would have been great to get that kind of experience. Anthony was going to be out a few games. It would have helped in my development. I've never been in a position where football was taken away from me through injury. It's normally taken away from you by losing in the playoffs, but this was definitely different."
He underwent surgery a short time after the injury occurred, then he went to New Jersey to recuperate. Being away from his team and being hurt for the first time meant Ijalana got very little from that point on during his rookie year. It left him uncomfortable.
"I did not get much from the guys here because I went home to New Jersey for almost three months. I live in a basement, and I couldn't even walk down the steps," said Ijalana. "You take walking for granted, just the simple liberty of crossing your legs. You find out what's important to you.
"The concept of IR (injured reserve) blew my mind, I was getting paid for doing nothing. It's a really bad feeling. When you're on IR, they say your mind goes to dark places. I would say it goes to deeper places. I redefined my love for football. I could not stand watching it on TV just knowing I was not a part of it. … I wanted to be there, and that's why I'm happy to be back. It's another chance to be part of something special, to be a part of something new. … I was removed from the program and you just wanted to get back with the troops. I would have loved to weather the storm (last year) with my teammates."
While he was away, Ijalana did stay in contact with Castonzo, Chris Rucker and Drake Nevis, fellow Colts draftees. In redefining his love for the game, he dealt only in determination to return rather than for feelings of, 'Why me?'
"There is no chance for pity. It (the injury) happened. It could have happened my senior year in college, and who knows? I might not be in Indiana," said Ijalana. "You have to take things how they're dealt."
Ijalana is among a few players around the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center regularly at this time of year. He, like a couple of others, is mending from last season.
"I should be back later this year," he said. "I'm still kind of a rookie. We kind of all are. We have new coaches, new techniques and new ways things are run. I have to make sure I'm prepared so when the physical matches the mental that I'm not lacking."