T.J. Stinde

Illinois Wesleyan running back T.J. Stinde talks to reporters Friday during Media Day at Tucci Stadium. The former Lexington High School star has decided to play his senior season despite knee and shoulder injuries. (The Pantagraph/STEVE SMEDLEY)

The easiest thing on T.J. Stinde’s body would have been to quit. He thought long and hard about it.

The breakaway threat was inclined to leave football in his wake. As much as he loves the game, it is arduous playing running back with shoulder issues and a knee that has no cartilage.

Well, there’s a little carti-lage. It’s just not his.

“What cartilage I do have is injected chicken cartilage,” Stinde said. “That wears away.”

As the calendar sped toward mid-August — like a healthy Stinde bursting through a hole — the former Lexington High School all-stater leaned toward sitting out his senior year at Illinois Wesleyan.

His plan seemed fool-proof. He would be with the team every day, but not practice or dress for games. His body had been through enough.

Yep, that would be best.

“I’m about six weeks out from my last knee surgery. When I woke up, that’s when I was kind of debating,” Stinde said. “There were points where I thought maybe I would not return.

“It got closer to this camp and I started thinking about telling some of the guys and it was like, ‘I can’t.’ ”

So Friday, as the Titans gathered at Tucci Stadium for Media Day, Stinde was in his home green No. 3 jersey.

He will play as much and as effectively as he can this season — not because the knee and shoulder have miraculously healed, but because his heart is with his teammates, particularly 31 fellow seniors.

“You really form a bond with these players,” Stinde said. “Some of my best friends I’ve met in college … guys who will stand up there with me at my wedding.”

His voice cracked a bit. That’s how much this means.

He won’t be carrying the ball 25 times a game. He’ll be no-where near the 368 carries he had during a record-breaking senior season at Lexington.

Stinde rushed for a state-record 3,325 yards and 46 touchdowns that year. Now, he hopes only to “provide whatever I can for the team,” and, most of all, “stay healthy.”

Here’s why:

As a sophomore in 2011, Stinde ran for 254 yards before a knee injury ended his season in the third game. Last year, the shoulder shelved him after six games and 495 yards.

The body that served Stinde so well in 2009 at Lexington — “I had an injured wrist but that was it,” he said — has betrayed him at IWU.

“Very frustrating,” he called it.

That said, Stinde’s most recent live action was encouraging. In the Titans’ early June exhibition game in Finland, he ran for 116 yards and two touchdowns.

Shortly after IWU returned, he had arthroscopic surgery on the troublesome knee.

The upside is the Finland ex-perience provided a blueprint. Prior to the trip, Stinde said he was “about 50-50 in practice.” That is, “I would (practice) one day and then go pretty light the next. Resting was probably the best thing for me.”

“I hadn’t been that fresh in a long time,” he said.

IWU coach Norm Eash seeks to keep him that way.

“I think because he’s a senior and he’s a proven fact you can do that with him,” Eash said of the limited practice regimen. “You still have to do some things, but we want to make sure he’s ready for the games.”

Stinde and his coach will tell you there is no magic number of carries in mind. Much will be dictated by how No. 3’s body responds.

Eash just knows the guy with chicken cartilage is still a threat with the football.

“When he steps on the field, he puts everything out of his mind and he just plays,” Eash said. “He’s a big-play athlete.

“He has the right approach. He wants to contribute. We’re going to give him every op-portunity, because when the game is on the line, you want kids like T.J. Stinde out there.”

Stinde wants it, too. He knows that now. Running when he can, even in pain, is easier than walking away.

Randy Kindred is at rkindred@pantagraph.com. The Kindred Blog: www.pantagraph.com/blogs

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