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Will TE Troy Fumagalli's missing finger be scrutinized by NFL?

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  • By Andy Fenelon NFL.com
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EDITOR'S NOTE: This past fall, NFL.com went Back 2 Campus to tell the incredible stories of some of college football's brightest stars, profiling the players before they become household names. This is the second in a daily series leading up the scouting combine, where these players will gather and compete for their standing in the 2018 NFL Draft.

MADISON, Wis. -- Troy Fumagalli is missing a finger on his left hand. He lost it in a kitchen blender accident when he was a kid.

Or was it chopped off by a fan blade? Perhaps it was that time he reached under the lawn mower on an autumn Saturday afternoon before he started using that day of the week to abuse opposing Big Ten defenses.

Ask the Wisconsin Badgers' star tight end what happened to his left index finger and you might get a different answer every time.

"Every once in a while," Fumagalli says, "if my friends are there, and someone asks me, I'll say, 'Oh, I got bit by a shark.' "

It's all in fun for Fumagalli, who -- if truth be told -- lost the finger from a birth defect that forced an amputation the day after he was born. He's very comfortable in his own skin, discussing freely something that to him has been a non-issue for a long time.

He boasts a football resume -- including a 2016 Catch of the Year nominee in last season's Cotton Bowl -- that should remove all doubt from everyone else's mind.

But here he is, closing in on the 2018 NFL Draft, and questions about the viability of his left hand arise in a nit-picky NFL scouting world that has never before seen this -- a player playing a position that logically you might think would require the use of all five digits on his dominant hand.

"I haven't been in there (Madison) yet," said a director of scouting for an NFC team this past fall, "but it's a situation that will still need to be scrutinized."

THE MOMENT HAD ARRIVED TOO SOON. A month early, to be exact. Carrying her third child in utero, Char Fumagalli's water suddenly burst.

Doug Fumagalli, president of the local youth football league who played wide receiver at Holy Cross in the mid-'70s, was running the two-minute offense to perfection, throwing the family's weekend plans out the window en route to the hospital near their home in Naperville, Ill.

Having given birth twice before, six and eight years earlier to boys, Char knew the drill well. But this one was different, from start to finish.

She was expecting a weighty boy from previous visits to her obstetrician, and who knows how much bigger Troy would have been had his mother gone full term with him. As it was, he came out 7 pounds, 5 ounces with a month of growth unfelt.

It wasn't her son's size, however, that Char first noticed.

"I thought I saw something on him but I just thought he needed to be cleaned up," recalled Char. "I just thought he needed to be cleaned up and he'd be fine."

Char's husband wasn't so certain.

"I think there's something wrong," Doug whispered to Char, as the nurse took Troy out of the room to be cleaned and examined.

"No, I'm sure there's nothing wrong," she said back in a hopeful voice.

The nurse who had taken Troy away was not the one who returned with him. It was the pediatrician who gave Troy back to his mother, and what Char thought she had seen before he was whisked away was still present. The index finger on Troy's left hand was purple and enlarged. To Char and Doug, it stood out, well, like a sore thumb.

What Troy had was something called Amniotic Band Syndrome, a condition that occurs when the unborn baby becomes entangled in string-like amniotic bands in the womb, strangling appendages by restricting blood flow, and affecting the baby's development.

With Troy, these fibrous strings had wrapped around all 10 digits on his hands, but only the left index finger had become necrotic. Babies with ABS can lose multiple fingers and toes, even entire limbs, the pediatrician explained. Troy's issue was limited to just one finger and the rest of the impacted digits all had sensation when pinched.

"We went from feeling extremely sad to extremely lucky all within seconds," said Char, who believes her youngest son could have lost all of his fingers had he spent more time in her womb. "When they put everything in perspective you realize, 'You know what, if it's just a finger we lose, it's not the end of the world. We'll make the best of it; this will be okay."

Doug, on the other hand, was not taking the one-moment-at-a-time approach his wife was. The index finger on what would turn out to be Troy's dominant hand would be amputated the next day, right down to the knuckle, and Doug's thoughts fast-forwarded years down the line.

How would others treat him? Would he get teased in school? Would he be the last picked for his team? Would he be able to play the sport that had earned Doug -- and eventually his two older sons -- college scholarships?

"Would he," Doug asked himself, "be viewed as different?"

A series of surgeries to remove the bands on the rest of Troy's fingers followed in the year after the initial amputation; scars from those procedures are present today.

But emotional scarring from all the things Doug had feared have been, for the most part, absent. The family treated the missing finger as normal -- 6-year-old Ross even took his baby brother to kindergarten for show-and-tell -- and Troy followed suit.

In fact, most people hardly notice. Former Badgers coach Gary Andersen went several weeks into his first spring camp in Madison before seeing the index finger on Fumagalli's left glove flapping in the wind. Current Badgers head coach Paul Chryst, oblivious a month into his first spring camp, had it pointed out to him by one of his assistants.

For others -- even those close to Fumagalli -- it took even longer.

"It had to be a couple of months into our freshmen year," said Badgers safety Joe Ferguson, one of Fumagalli's best friends on the team. "I was kind of freaked out at first. He explained he was born like that. As time went by I watched how he did things -- how he would write, how he would do things. It's funny how he points at things; he points with his middle finger.

"We've tried to get him to talk about it, but he's made it not a big deal. It doesn't bother him at all and that's the attitude he takes. He tries to show other people that's the attitude they should take, too. I think he learned from a young age not to listen to what anyone else said about it, and didn't let it hinder him. That's why I think he's been so successful."

AS A LEFT-HANDED PITCHER on the Waubonsie Valley High School baseball team in suburban Chicago, Fumagalli gripped the ball with his middle and ring fingers and stabilized it with his thumb. He was able to get wicked movement on a ball hitters had trouble tracking.

He was a legitimate college prospect in the sport, which partly explains why big-time football programs weren't knocking his door down with scholarship offers. He missed some recruiting opportunities in football, including Wisconsin's Junior Day, because of baseball commitments.

His focus in high school was on the round ball -- he thought about a career in baseball often -- until growth plate surgery on his left elbow forced him to turn his full attention to football as a junior. At 6-foot-4, height was never an issue, but his weight hovered around 200 pounds and Big Ten recruiters had trouble imagining him filling out that lanky frame.

All the MAC schools were after him, including Northern Illinois, and other small schools like Western Kentucky had offered him full rides for football. But Fumagalli's heart was set on the power conferences, whose teams' interest in him was tepid at best.

It was all so perplexing to Fumagalli, who was all-state in baseball and football and saw first-hand how he could compete at the highest level with the likes of O.J. Howard at a high school Under Armour combine he attended in Florida his junior year.

"I told (recruiters at the Big Ten schools), 'You guys are making a big mistake here," said Waubonsie Valley football coach Paul Murphy. "He was playing two sports and was still growing. He had this baby face and wasn't even shaving yet; he had no hair on his legs. I said, 'You guys can't project what he's gonna look like in a year or two from now? When he's in your weight program, when he's on your food table, you can't project what this kid is gonna look like?' "

Only two large schools were offering any kind of assistance: North Carolina State put a full-ride offer on the table and Wisconsin was offering a grayshirt opportunity (delayed school entry, one year as a walk-on, three on scholarship). At the time, the Badgers had 10 tight ends on their roster and had used their last TE scholarship on T.J. Watt, who eventually would switch to outside linebacker, a position he now plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren, a former Badgers assistant, recruited Fumagalli hard as the head coach at Northern Illinois, and when he got the N.C. State job in late 2012, he offered Fumagalli a full ride, with the caveat that the family get back to him with an answer in seven days or the offer would be null and void.

By all accounts, it was a grueling decision for Fumagalli, who had fallen in love with the Wisconsin campus on a visit to Madison with his mother. In the end, there wasn't much of a decision to be made because six days in, the offer from N.C. State was prematurely pulled off the table.

Paul Fumagalli says Troy had just switched cell phones and Doeren, with other players he was considering waiting in the wings, was unable to reach Troy to get an answer and had to move forward without him. Meanwhile, Fumagalli had already informed the Wisconsin coaching staff he was going to accept Doeren's offer. Murphy says when he found out it had been pulled, he personally got on the phone with Coach Andersen and asked if the grayshirt deal was still available at Wisconsin. Andersen, whose son Chasen was going through a similar recruiting ordeal at the time, said the offer was still valid.

"I immediately called Troy and said, 'Get your butt up to Wisconsin and have a hell of a career," Murphy said.

In the back of his mind, Murphy wonders how much, if anything, Fumagalli's missing finger had to do with the light recruitment of his star player. Schools already saw a kid who they weren't sure would ever be able to fill out his frame. And now they could never be certain his dominant hand wouldn't become an issue at the next level either, even though it was never one in high school.

"Nobody outwardly ever said that to me but when you look back at it, probably," Murphy said. "How can this kid play football with nine fingers, you know? When people are short-sighting other people because of a perceived disability, shame on them."

DRESSED IN BADGERS FOOTBALL SWAG, Fumagalli, 22, sits relaxed in a leather chair in one of the Wisconsin football offices overlooking Camp Randall Stadium. He's showing off some old war wounds on his right hand -- a large smile-shaped scar on the backside from an injury that required 30 stitches after he was stepped on by a teammate's cleats, and a broken thumb that needed surgery.

The subject turns to The Catch, the one that helped earn him MVP honors in the 2016 Cotton Bowl. He's seen it "20 times or so" because he says fans are constantly sending it to him on social media, and readily admits, "I don't know how I caught it."

The Catch is quite remarkable for several reasons. First, it came in a clutch moment on third down. Second, he was being held on the play by a Western Michigan defender. Third, his 6-foot-6, 248-pound frame was outstretched, extended nearly horizontal with the ground. Lastly, he hauled it in with one hand -- his left hand with the missing digit -- securing it with just his three fingers and thumb.

To his teammates and coaches, however, it was business as usual. Ferguson, who faces Fumagalli in practice every day, admitted it was "a great catch, even by Troy's standards," but at the same moment, "I was like, he does that to us in practice all the time."

"You love it in the moment and appreciate it. I mean, that was on third down, all those are big," added Chryst. "But there's nothing that says, 'I can't believe he did that.' Maybe that's not fair to him, but it's the truth."

Not fair, perhaps, but one of the highest compliments you can pay one of your players. And Chryst knows a thing or two about tight ends. A former tight end himself, he's developed five of them into elite prospects and productive NFL players, including Owen Daniels (Round 4, 2006), Travis Beckum (Round 3, 2009), Garrett Graham (Round 4, 2010) and Lance Kendricks (Round 2, 2011) at Wisconsin, and Tim Euhus (Round 4, 2004) at Oregon State.

And how does Fumagalli compare?

"Fum's putting himself in that conversation," Chryst said. "He's a really good one. Is he the best? ... I think he's capable of being special."

Immediately following his Cotton Bowl performance -- on a family vacation at the Marriott Harbor Beach Resort in Fort Lauderdale -- Fumagalli contemplated leaving school early and entering the draft, but in his heart, he knew he wasn't ready. He hadn't asked for a grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Board, but other information he was receiving placed him on Day 3 in a draft loaded with top tight ends like Howard, David Njoku and Evan Engram.

Instead, he returned to Madison to get "bigger, stronger, faster," as he put it; complete his degree in finance, investment and banking; and compete for a national championship with all of his teammates who entered the program with him four years earlier.

He increased his catch totals in each of his first three seasons -- from 14 as a freshman to 28 as a sophomore to 47 in 2016 -- and finished his senior year with 46. He also greatly improved his blocking each year -- both in the run game and in pass pro -- and has turned himself into what Chryst refers to as a "real" tight end.

After his junior season, Fumagalli wanted to work on the intellectual part of his game, so he met regularly with defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, a former walk-on safety at Wisconsin who spent 10 years in the NFL with six different teams. While Chryst encourages cross-over meetings between players on one side of the ball and coaches on the other, it doesn't always happen. It takes special effort on the player's part to want it enough, and for Fumagalli, it paid dividends.

"He's doing a really nice job of finding the soft spot in defenses, and noticing pre-snap what coverages the defense is in, knowing where the weak spots of that defense are," outside linebacker Garret Dooley said in September. "I think in his mind he still believes he has a lot to prove. He knows he can go out there and be the best tight end in the nation."

DR. STEVEN SHIN IS STUMPED. Despite more than 20 years of clinical experience, the director of hand surgery at the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles and hand consultant for almost every L.A. pro sports team as well as USC football, is having trouble coming up with another college or pro sports case similar to Fumagalli's.

In football, there have been players who have had to adapt following accidents or injuries to their fingers that required full or partial amputations. Shin mentions Jason Pierre-Paul, the New York Giants' pass-rushing phenom who in 2014 had a Fourth of July fireworks accident that cost him his entire right index finger and part of his thumb.

"Closest comparison I can think of," Shin says.

In 1986, Ronnie Lott famously chose to have his left pinkie amputated just above the first joint rather than undergo reconstructive surgery that would have required him to miss time on the field.

Tom Dempsey was born without fingers on his right hand and toes on his right foot. He is the kicker whose 63-yard field goal in 1970 for the Saints was an NFL record that stood for 43 years. His modified shoe with a flattened toe surface was eventually outlawed by the league.

In baseball, there's pitcher Jim Abbott, the Michigan product who reached All-Star status in the Major Leagues despite the absence of his right, non-throwing hand; and Mordecai Brown, who lost the index finger on his dominant hand in a farm accident when he was a boy but threw a nasty curveball in the majors for 13 years in the early 1900s.

And, of course, there's Shaquem Griffin, the UCF linebacker whose missing hand has become a big story in his attempt to get drafted in the same class as Fumagalli. Griffin, too, was born with Amniotic Band Syndrome and had his hand amputated when he was just 4 years old.

That's the short list. And really, none of them -- with perhaps Dempsey and Brown as the closest -- compare to Fumagalli, whose missing digit is crucial to almost everything he does as a tight end.

But "crucial" is a relative word. Because the amputation occurred just 24 hours after he was born, Fumagalli doesn't know what he doesn't know. He has been adapting literally since the day he was born.

In his world, the only crucial fingers are the ones he owns.

"Does he know how to catch it without (his index finger)?" Chryst asks rhetorically. "That's what's cool with people with -- it's a relative term -- but people with disabilities. He knows no other way. The power of will … it blows your mind."

Fumagalli is asked if he ever wished he had an index finger on his left hand.

"Nah," he answers, "it probably would just get in the way."

THE NINE DIGITS FUMAGALLI DOES HAVE are incredibly strong. Aside from a hiccup against Florida Atlantic in the Badgers' second game this past season when he had two drops, Fumagalli has caught just about everything thrown his way in his four years at Wisconsin. Guaranteed, he'll have some of the surest hands at the combine. And maybe some of the strongest.

Dr. Shin says he would be surprised if Fumagalli's left hand grip strength was significantly different from his right, despite the missing finger. He says you would expect about a 25 percent grip-strength loss with an index finger amputation in an average adult. But with someone like Fumagalli, whose amputation took place so soon after birth and who has learned to compensate throughout his life, the loss should be minimal -- maybe 10 percent, Shin suspects.

Maybe less, according to teammates who marvel at his hand strength on the field.

"If the quarterback puts it anywhere near his body, he's going to catch it," said Ferguson, who calls Fumagalli the best tight he's played against, including Penn State's Mike Gesicki, whom some consider the nation's best. "I could pull up a million clips of film where (defenders) get a hand in, and somehow at the end of the play he still has the ball. It's funny to see the DB look all around and put his hands in the air like he really doesn't know how that just happened. He's so strong that once he gets his hands on the ball there's no one who can get it out."

Sort of like New England Patriots all-pro tight end Rob Gronkowski. Interestingly, a few Wisconsin defensive coaches paid Fumagalli the ultimate respect early in fall camp last year when they instituted the Gronk Rule, telling edge rushers like Dooley to chip him off the line on every play to throw off his route and provide assistance for the back end of the defense.

It was great practice for Fumagalli, who was bound to see more of this type of extra attention in his senior season. Four of his 46 catches this past fall went for touchdowns, an output that surpassed the total from his first three seasons.

WHEN THE BADGERS' SEASON FINISHED with a 34-24 victory over Miami in the Orange Bowl, Fumagalli jumped on a plane and immediately started his combine training. Once he hits the combine, that's when the real scrutiny will begin. Has the NFL evolved enough to where something like a missing finger is no longer factored into the equation when the player has provided enough tape to make it a non-issue?

Already, there are signs it will be a small consideration, if not a non-factor altogether.

"If he doesn't drop the ball, I can't imagine anyone caring," said a personnel executive with an AFC team.

"By all indications the kid has soft hands and is more natural with the ball in the air than some kids would be with 11 fingers," added a director of scouting for an NFC team. "If he proves he can catch with nine, then it's not an issue."

Dr. Shin was asked what his recommendation to teams would be, based on his limited knowledge of Fumagalli. After going on at length about how important grip strength would be in any final assessment, he was shown the Cotton Bowl catch, in real time, then in slow motion.

He had seen enough.

"Rather than being a deficit," he said, "I would look at his situation as one less digit that can get injured."

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