It was last October that Georgia Tech linebacker Anthony Harrell experienced one of his greatest triumphs and most crushing setbacks on the same afternoon. He was promoted to first string at linebacker for the Syracuse game, having made steady progress as a backup through the first half of his sophomore seasons.
Then, covering a kickoff in that game, Harrell planted his knee to change direction to tackle the Orange returner. At the same moment, a Syracuse player caught him flush the other way with a block. His ACL and meniscus were torn, ending his season in an instant.
“I actually tried to get up,” Harrell said. “I fell back down. I was like, Hold up. I don’t know what this is. I got up, and I wasn’t going to be weak. For me, it’s weak if you lay on the field.”
Harrell jogged off the field. He said last week that trainers told him it was the first time they’d seen someone do that with a torn ACL. It wasn’t long, though, before the diagnosis from sports medicine director and team doctor John Xerogeanes stripped away his bravado. All of his labor and drive to move up the depth chart had been voided by a torn ligament and torn cartilage.
“They told me,” he said. “That’s when I broke down.”
Eleven months later, Harrell made his return to the field, playing special teams and linebacker against Tulane two Saturdays ago, followed by his first home game since the injury, against Georgia Southern last Saturday.
“I’m still not all the way there yet, but I’m pretty much there,” Harrell said last week. “It takes time. Everyone says you’re never going to be 100 percent until, I think, 14 months after surgery.”
“He’s still learning the game, still learning what everybody else does, not just what he does, but one thing Anthony will do, he will get downhill and he will hit you,” linebackers coach Andy McCollum said in August. “We’ve just got to get him in the right direction, and he’ll continue learning that.”
Said Harrell, “This is definitely not where I want to be. A long ways off from where I want to be, to be back where I felt like where I was.”
Harrell, who has followed several graduates of Tampa (Fla.) Jesuit to Tech, is also a long ways from where he was post-injury. After a few weeks of feeling sorry for himself last fall, Harrell drove himself in rehabilitation. His surgery, in fact, was performed by renowned surgeon James Andrews, who has operated on Brett Favre, Jack Nicklaus, Drew Brees, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Charles Barkley among many others. Harrell was connected to Andrews through Shoop, who Is a friend of the surgeon.
“You don’t want to be there, but it was cool to meet him, knowing that he did all these famous people,” Harrell said. “I knew I was in good hands.”
As he rehabilitated, he watched videos of two noteworthy NFL players who had quickly rehabbed ACL tears – Adrian Peterson and Robert Griffin III. He cribbed exercises and therapy tools from both, including a sleeve made by the company Game Ready for cold and compression treatment.
“It compresses (the knee) right after you work out,” Harrell said. “It’s one of the best things to get any swelling down. I really had no swelling. I still have no swelling even after working out.”
As Andrews had forecast, Harrell was ready for the second game of the season. He was on the field for the opening kickoff and played on both the kickoff and kickoff return teams and also played some snaps on defense.
“It felt good to get back out there,” Harrell said. “A little rusty at first, but started to get back into the flow of things towards the end of the game.”
Harrell had another reward for his return. Harrell, who had worn No. 51 since arriving at Tech, had always wanted to wear his high school number, 11, or a single-digit number. When he asked coach Paul Johnson in the summer about No. 2 – which was available with Vad Lee’s transfer – Johnson told him that it would go to the player who had the best preseason camp, which Harrell figured would take him out of the running.
But after Johnson didn’t hand out either 2 or 8 after camp, Harrell asked again, and Johnson told him it shouldn’t be a problem to get No. 2 after he came back. (No. 8, which had been assigned to Myles Autry before he received a release from his letter of intent, was given to cornerback Step Durham.) Harrell tried to swing a trade with quarterback Matthew Jordan, who has No. 11. Jordan was not interested.
So 2 it is. It was waiting in his locker last Monday. All the other single-digit jerseys are worn by defensive backs, A-backs or quarterbacks.
“It was a big moment,” Harrell said. I was excited. Most linebackers, they don’t really get single digits.”
There will presumably be more moments to come.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Harrell said. “I just fought through adversity. I’m excited to be back where I’m at now and hopefully just keep working and hopefully keep getting better every week.”