Jaron Blossomgame comes into Tuesday night’s showdown at Georgia as Clemson’s leading scorer and rebounder with 16.4 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. But the Bulldogs — and those fans from the Atlanta area — know Blossomgame’s story transcends any statistics.
Four years ago, the Chattahoochee High graduate suffered a gruesome compound leg fracture going up for a dunk after a workout with his AAU team, the Georgia Stars. He stayed down on the court with a bone protruding from his left leg a year before Kevin Ware brought such an injury to the national consciousness during the 2013 NCAA tournament with Louisville.
Blossomgame was still three months away from enrolling at Clemson when he was hurt. His AAU coach, William Steele, recalls hearing a loud pop echo throughout the gym.
“My bone was sticking out of my leg,” Blossomgame said. “At that point, I had no idea what’s going on. I was just shocked.”
As Steele rushed to his side, somebody found a piece of cardboard to hold in front of Blossomgame’s leg to shield him from seeing it. Steele’s task was to keep Blossomgame calm before the ambulance arrived.
“Jaron had dislocated his finger one day and you would have thought it was chopped off the way he was running all over and saying, ‘Don’t touch it!’” Steele said. “So we thought that he was really going to go into shock.”
But as fate would have it, one of his AAU teammate’s fathers had made a revelation of sorts that day. Keith Morse, whose son Anthony Morse is now a senior forward at Tennessee Tech, showed up at practice that day in a wheelchair. For two years, the team and coaches had only seen him upright and walking. Until that day, they had no idea he wore prosthetics because both his legs had been amputated.
“Anthony’s dad wheeled his way over to Jaron and told Jaron, ‘You’re going to be OK,’” Steele said. “By him being there that day and Jaron seeing he had no legs, he didn’t go into shock. He didn’t panic.”
Steele said Blossomgame kept asking if his career was over. Steele assured him he would be out for a couple of months but he would be OK. Steele rode with Blossomgame to the hospital and stayed up all night with him after his surgery.
“He was looking in my eyes pretty much the whole time,” Steele said. “I know if I had reacted in any kind of negative way, he could have gone into shock. So I just had to stay calm. Once I walked through the door at home (the next day), that’s when I broke down.”
Steele, whom Blossomgame considers to be like a second father, was a big part of his recovery, too. He attended every Clemson home game, even during the redshirt year that Blossomgame took to recover. Steele, his wife and their son would show up an hour early to watch warm-ups, just so they could catch Blossomgame in action.
Even by the end of that season, Blossomgame’s leg hadn’t healed properly. He required a second operation in which bone marrow from his hip was injected into his leg.
While the physical healing began again, the mental side remained a challenge. Blossomgame had to overcome his fears of taking off on that leg again. He was back on the court his freshman year — and had a breakout 14-point, 14-rebound game against Duke — but it wasn’t until he took off on one particular dunk in a road game that both Steele and former Clemson assistant coach Earl Grant, who had recruited Blossomgame, knew he had cleared a big hurdle.
Steele said the Clemson coaches had noticed that sometimes he would dunk and sometimes he would lay the ball up, still hesitant.
“You saw the confidence all come back,” Steele said. “That was the dunk he needed.”
Unbelievably, Blossomgame’s recovery wasn’t over. In the first game of the NIT at the end of that year, he fractured the same leg again.
“A hairline fracture,” Blossomgame said. “I had to sit out for the NIT final four in New York.”
His recovery was much quicker this time and Blossomgame used a largely healthy offseason to take a big step forward his sophomore year. He led the Tigers in scoring and rebounding and was jumping higher, he thinks, than he did before the fracture.
“I feel like I’m more athletic than I was back then,” Blossomgame said. “Last year, being able to be healthy the whole season, I could produce the way I wanted to.”
Blossomgame said he worries no longer about his leg, which is reinforced by a titanium rod. “They say it’s not going to break again,” he said. Last winter he worked on improving his jump shot to complement the dynamic drives to the basket.
“I really believe in myself,” Blossomgame said. “And I believe I can get through anything. This injury has helped me fight through a lot of things in my life and it’s helped me mature a lot. I feel like my support group and the coaches at Clemson really helped me get through it and put that fear behind me.”
Clemson coach Brad Brownell agrees.
“The further you get away from that injury, the more you become comfortable,” Brownell said. “Jaron is to that point now and seems to be in a very good place.”