Joe Protheroe remembers playing a lot of Madden. He remembers sitting on his couch, being mad at the world and playing Madden.
Protheroe's dream since he was 6-years-old was to play professional football. Ever since his dad put him in the sport at that age, Protheroe remembers watching the Oakland Raiders in the early 2000s and thinking that will be him someday.
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As his college career progressed in Cal Poly's triple-option offense, Protheroe's dream started to become more in focus. The workhorse fullback earned FCS All-American honors as a sophomore in 2015. The next year, Protheroe rushed for 1,334 yards and 13 touchdowns and was named to multiple All-American First Teams.
He was set for a big senior season in 2017, but two games in, Protheroe suffered a devastating season-ending knee injury.
“My mind was in the gutter, I’m not going to lie to you," Protheroe told HERO Sports. "I thought I had a lot of buzz heading into that year. When I felt my knee pop, I was so mad. I had a conversation with God. When I felt it pop, I thought there goes my dreams. I thought that was it, I’m done. I talked to (head coach Tim Walsh) and he said I’ll get a medical redshirt and I’ll come back and be better. I didn’t believe him at the time.”
Protheroe admits he was depressed for the 3-4 months after the injury and surgery. He couldn't move around a whole lot and spent a lot of time on the couch with a gaming controller in his hands.
But like he's done his whole career, he leaned on his biggest motivating factor: his family.
Protheroe has been married to Ashley for almost five years now. They've dated since they were 15. The two have three daughters: 4-year-old Jolene, 2-year-old Jordyn, who was born during the football season, and 6-month-old Joelle.
Whether it was helping him through his injury a couple years ago or raising a family with a full-time student-athlete, Ashley has been by Protheroe's side. Protheroe said the toughest part of being a student, athlete, husband and father was the lack of sleep. There were some nights when his baby cried until 3 a.m. and he had to wake up for football practice at 5:30 a.m.
Ashley told him to put earplugs in so he could get more sleep.
“She’s played a huge part in my success," he said. "She’s always kept my head on straight whenever I’m down on myself. She gives me that motivation. She always tells me she believes in me.”
Protheroe rebounded from his injury in a big way in 2018. He was named to seven different All-American teams as he ran for 1,810 yards and 13 touchdowns off of 363 carries.
His dream of playing professional football remains alive and well. ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. ranks him the fifth best fullback in the 2019 draft.
Protheroe expects to play fullback at the next level, but if a team sees him as a short-yardage back, that's even better. His impressive 363 carries his senior year offers a lot on film, including a season-long run of 70 yards.
“It’s a really big key for the scouts," Protheroe. "It shows I have a little burst. I definitely feel different from before I tore my knee up. I feel like I didn’t get back to the speed I wanted to get to. But I think being at California Strength, I’m getting my speed back.”
California Strength is where Protheroe has been training since taking a week off when Cal Poly's season ended. He's getting ready for his Pro Day on March 22. Protheroe has had some interaction with NFL scouts already and hopes his Pro Day elevates his stock.
The Concord, California, native is thankful for the position he's in for multiple reasons. He bounced back from a knee injury that put doubts in his mind. He's pursuing his childhood dream. And he has the opportunity to provide for his family.
“Coming from where me and my wife are from, we grew up not coming from a lot of money," Protheroe said. "Even thinking about getting that shot to make some money and do better for our kids and give our kids a better childhood than we had, that’s my motivation. I want my kids, while I’m not going to spoil them, I want them to have whatever they want when they ask their father. I don’t want them to skip any meals and all that. My family is definitely motivating me.”