Had the plan remained in place, everything about college life — the basketball, the books, the Golden Dome, the strong sense of community — would have been far in the rearview mirror today for Rex Pflueger.
He had done enough in the classroom (a bachelor’s degree in marketing) and on the basketball court (over 100 career games played) to see the finish line last season. He was fitted for his graduation cap and gown. He was ready to move on.
The future was falling into focus. He’d chase professional basketball somewhere for as long as he could, but if that didn’t work and it was time to do something else, Pflueger was ready for that as well.
Real life got in the way and messed all that up.
December 2018 hit Pflueger like a crusher back screen. Knocked him back; knocked him cold. Those four weeks tested everything about him as a player and as a person. How would he handle it? Could he?
For Pflueger, there was no other choice. He had to push through all the pain and remain certain, stay strong under the most trying of circumstances.
Basketball became the least of his concerns, even for someone expected to lead Notre Dame as the program’s lone senior. Pflueger was prepared to do that, and felt the Irish were on the verge of figuring it all out when it all fell apart.
Pflueger’s paternal grandmother died in early December. A short time later, his mother, Rebecca, his emotional rock, was diagnosed with stage four brain cancer. Suddenly, basketball didn’t seem all that important, but being around basketball, well, that was important for Pflueger and for his family.
Far from his Southern California home, Pflueger leaned on Notre Dame coach Mike Brey and his assistants and his teammates as if they were his father, his uncles and his brothers. He needed basketball more than ever as Pflueger’s mother started treatment that has included chemotherapy and MRIs and surgeries and a radiation schedule of five days a week for six weeks.
Then in mid-December, Pflueger went to plant his left foot in a game against Purdue and felt something in his knee snap. In an instant, he lost the rest of his senior season, lost his view of the immediate future, lost basketball for the first time in his life with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Just when it seemed everything was falling apart — his mother underwent her first brain surgery 24 hours after Pflueger fell to the floor in Indianapolis — Pflueger vowed not to let it. He’d stay strong. He’d stay positive. He’d keep living life hoping and believing.
For some, that might have been hard. For him, it was easy. That’s who he is. Always.
“The best way to keep your mind in times of trouble is to keep a consistent mindset,” Pflueger said last week in his first interview since his injury. “If you start fluctuating, you’ll get too high or too low. Then if you hit a pitfall in life, you’ll feel all sorts out of whack.
“When bad times hit, I count my previous blessings and bring those back into a positive mindset, remind myself to be thankful for the opportunities that I’ve had.”
Pflueger felt last week finally was the right time to open up about his injury, his family, his life, because he’s in a better place. Those last eight months saw some pretty dark days, for myriad reasons. But he’s come out the other side on the verge of returning to the court for the Irish. Another season’s near, and the time’s right to talk about basketball, about the present, about the future.
None of that can proceed without reliving the past.
Everything seemingly was gelling for Pflueger and the Irish at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in mid-December against Purdue. Never mind the losses to Radford and Oklahoma and UCLA. Notre Dame looked like it had figured it out with Pflueger taking more command of the offense.
He kind of ran everything, and had a career-high 10 assists working. It was, Brey would say, maybe the most complete game of Pflueger’s career.
He was that good.
Pflueger then went to block Grady Eifert’s shot near the basket. Barely even off the ground, he already knew that it was bad.
“Like that,” he said. “I didn’t care about the rest of my body; I grabbed my knee and started breathing.”
Former Irish trainer Skip Meyer rushed to Pflueger’s side and asked if he was OK. Usually, Pflueger would brush him off, try to get up and get back to the game. That wasn’t going to work.
“I said, ‘(@%&%), I tore my ACL,’” Pflueger said.
Pflueger tried to walk it off, tried to convince himself it really wasn’t that bad back in the locker room, but the leg already had started to swell. And throb. He knew his season was over, but part of him, OK, a lot of him, didn’t care.
“In my mind, I didn’t even give a (%$#@), to be honest with you,” he said. “It had happened during the most interesting and difficult time of my life, going through everything with my mother and her situation.”
Pflueger felt he let his teammates down by getting hurt. He couldn’t help them when they needed his help. At that point, with everything else going on, it didn’t matter.
“I had to be a little selfish in thinking about my family,” he said.
Pflueger’s season-ending injury had a slight silver lining. He’d been hurt early enough in the season to have the option to pursue a fifth year of eligibility. With graduation closing quickly and post-college plans coming together, why would he even want to return? The next chapter in life was beckoning.
Brey preached patience. There was no hurry for Pflueger to decide. He counseled the kid to let the swelling subside, go home to Orange County and be with his mother, have reconstructive surgery and ease back into school. The decision bridge could be crossed come spring.
A return home was exactly what Pflueger needed to figure out the future. His mom helped him.
Five days into 2019, with Notre Dame preparing for its Atlantic Coast Conference home opener against Syracuse, Pflueger took to social media to announce that he would be back for a fifth year.
“Realistically, I didn’t know whether or not they wanted me back,” Pflueger said. “Maybe they had something else in mind to where if I came back, it was going to mess up that plan.”
Hardly. When coach and player met, Pflueger had only one question for Brey. If he wanted to come back, could he?
Brey’s response? Hell, yeah.
“There was my decision,” Pflueger said. “I said, ‘Let’s do this.’”
Rebecca Pflueger already had said the same. She knew how much her youngest son loved Notre Dame, loved the basketball program, loved the life he’d made for himself in Northern Indiana. Her health remains an issue, but knowing that her son is where he wants to be, where he needs to be, has helped.
“I don’t want to lie; she’s not doing the best,” Pflueger said. “She’s going through some challenges. She’s fighting. I know that she wants me to do this. She wants me here.
“That’s why I love her so much.”
Returning for a fifth year wasn’t going to be a coast when it came to course work. Rehab alone was going to be hard. School was going to be even harder.
Accepting a fifth year allowed Pflueger to enroll in Notre Dame’s accelerated MBA summer program. That meant six hours a day of classes. Then long stretches of rehab. Then at least five hours of homework every night. It was 16-hour days, five days a week for 10 weeks. No breaks. No excuses.
“They crush you,” Brey said.
Pflueger was in the MBA program of 30 students. Of those, only five were spring graduates. Pflueger, who turned 23 last month, was one of the youngest in a group whose median age was 29. The schedule was relentless. There were group projects and papers. Tests were given every Friday.
“Ooof,” he said when asked how he handled it. “That was the most intense schooling ever.”
Pflueger’s now in the second-year MBA program, where the demands ease slightly. He’s close to returning to the court with no restrictions. He’s still taking it slow with small victories here and there. Like last week when he released video on social media dunking for the first time with no sharp stabs of soreness.
It was, he said, surreal. He had longed took dunking for granted. Doing it recently nearly brought him to tears. It was a sign that everything he’s done to get back has worked.
In the coming weeks, he’ll return to the court to practice, to lead, to be around his teammates, to play. He’s not going to be the team’s leading scorer, or top rebounder, or main assist guy. Everything just flows easier with him on the floor.
“We’ve missed him,” Brey said. “It will be neat to have him back. You know Rex, he thinks he’ll be back before he should be.”
The season opener — Nov. 6 at North Carolina — remains his target return. He wants to be in the starting lineup. He wants to play. For himself. For his teammates. For his mother.
He’ll play with the constant reminder — a purple/pink/reddish surgical scar that runs up the middle of his left knee — of how it was taken away from him last year. How it taught him even more to cherish every day.
“When I got injured, I had this realization that yeah, you only get one shot at this, so you better make the most of it,” Pflueger said. “I’m in a good place.”