Only Next Year

ATHENS - Forget about Dannell Ellerbe, Rod Battle and Kris Durham. Even Brannan Southerland.

Forget about Dannell Ellerbe, Rod Battle and Kris Durham. Even Brannan Southerland.

They were the short-timers of Georgia's training room. What we're talking about here are the lifers. The Bulldogs exited 2007 with national championship aspirations, and then saw their strength cut again and again and again by significant injuries.

Ellerbe, Battle, Southerland and Durham, starters all, missed big chunks of the season due to injuries. Safety Quintin Banks couldn't get on the field for more than half the season. Tight end Tripp Chandler and Bruce Figgins and wide receiver Tony Wilson also missed time.

But for all of those players, there was something that can be vital to the rehabilitation process – a light at the end of the tunnel. For four, however, there was nothing but the hollow hope of next year.

"It's easy to rehab an ankle sprain for seven or 10 days, but when you're dealing with something that goes on for six months, your ability to cope is tested," said Ron Courson, Georgia's head athletic trainer.

Linebackers Marcus Washington and Charles White, offensive tackle Trinton Sturdivant, defensive tackle Jeff Owens and offensive tackle Vince Vance all were injured at different points in the season, but they shared one thing – when they left the field, they knew they weren't coming back until 2009.

A quick review:

Washington: A nagging shoulder injury convinced him during spring practice that surgery and a year of rehab was necessary to be an effective football player.

White: The redshirt freshman from South Carolina suffered a season-ending Achilles' tendon injury in a fall scrimmage.

Sturdivant: He had been penciled in as the Bulldogs' starting left tackle for months when a torn ACL ended his season just weeks before it was to begin.

Owens: The senior made it to the field but just barely. He was injured in the first game of the season and knew right away his season was through.

Vance: Sturdivant's replacement at left tackle lasted longer than any of the other three. Torn knee ligaments suffered in the Tennessee game ended his season.

(The bad luck didn't stop at current Bulldogs either. Included was high school quarterback Aaron Murray, who, in what had to feel like an excessive kick in the ribs to Georgia fans, broke his leg during an October game with his Plant High School team. Murray, one of the top-rated quarterbacks in the country, signed with the Dawgs and is in school now.)

Courson has plenty of experience helping wounded Bulldogs of all varieties through their rehabilitation, and one thing he has determined in 13 years at the school is that there is a wildcard factor when dealing with season-ending injuries – psychology.

"You just have to keep telling yourself it's going to get better," Washington said. "It's rough being out, seeing our teammates out there losing or winning. When they lose, when they win, you want to feel like you're a part of it."

"It's worse when they lose," Washington said.

"All you want to do is put your pads on and do your best to prevent them from losing," he said. "When they hurt, I hurt."

Courson and his staff have several tools beyond the physical rehabilitation. The first is a mandatory meeting with the team's sports psychologist and/or trainer.

"Some people may need some help with coping," Courson said.

The second is a pep talk from a current or former Bulldog who has had a similar procedure.

"If someone has an ACL reconstruction, well, we have had probably 15 guys with that," Courson said. "I try to have one of those guys sit down and talk to them. It's one thing for the medical staff to talk to them, but I think it's another thing for somebody in their position to come back and talk to them."

The third is a little class work. Courson wants the Bulldogs to understand their injury as much as possible, and if that means breaking out a model of the knee joint and showing the player exactly what went pop and how it'll be fixed, that's what he does.

"The more they know about their injury, I firmly believe, the better they do in the rehab," he said. "We want them to understand why they can do this, and why they can't do that."

It all boils down to keeping the focus on the positive, Courson said.

"You want the athletic trainer to be very positive and upbeat," Courson said. "They are going to have times when they are down. We tell them it's like climbing a mountain. You take one step at a time. Sometimes you may go through the little valleys, but you have to keep taking step by step."

Georgia's training staff always tries to find the bright side of the situation, whether it be pointing out that a player has one more year to work toward a degree or even earn a master's or working on a physical aspect that is below its potential.

When wide receiver Sean Bailey lost the 2006 season to a knee injury, the weight room staff spent the whole year working to develop his upper body strength.

"As soon as it is feasible, we want to get them back in the weight room," Courson said. "One of the things we want to do is not just focus on their injury, but focus on the total body."

Courson also encourages all his injured players to keep going to their position meetings.

"We try to keep them as integrated as we can in the football team," Courson said. "They don't tend to dwell as much on their individual injury or situation (that way)."

Washington, in fact, was far enough along in his rehab that he could participate on the scout team, a unit occupied mostly by walk-ons and redshirt freshmen this season. That outlet kept Washington from going crazy, he said.

"I'm doing what I can do to give the offense a good look and do what I can do with that," he said. "That helps make me feel like I'm part of the team, doing something to help the team out, which is my goal. It helps out a whole lot. I get to work out with the guys a little bit. It keeps me inside the circle so I don't feel like I'm an outsider."

That's exactly the feeling Courson wants to promote in any way possible.

"People that are engaged and happier tend to do better with rehabilitation," he said. "Obviously, there is a negative involved, but we want to focus on the positive."

Owens doesn't have that option since his knee injury severely limited his mobility most of the season.

"I spend time in the meeting room. I'm still in tune with everything that is going on," he said. "I just lift weights every day, lifting weight trying to get stronger, trying to motivate the other guys."

Owens uses his disappointment and frustration "as motivation to get back on that field and give it what I've got," he said.

For an elite athlete level, it's always a bit of a surprise to suffer a significant injury, particularly when you see so many of your teammates felled in similarly serious fashion.

"I've been surprised big time, but it's football," he said. "It's going to come, and it's going to go. I've just got to bounce back. That's football. That's life."

Although the glut of injuries was a detriment to the Bulldogs on the field this season, it did have a positive effect on the injured players.

"The main thing is there are a lot of us, so we just talk amongst ourselves about things and how to deal with it," he said. "We are just coming together, just encouraging one another during our rehab time. If you are just stuck in there by yourself, it can get boring and dry."

Not this year, though.

"There are no dull moments," said Owens, who likely is the most responsible for that paucity of boring days.

"There is some positive aspect to that," Courson acknowledged. "You hate to have a lot of people injured, but sometimes when you are the only person there you tend to dwell on it a little more."

Players with similar injuries also can be a positive influence on each other.

"So if Jeff is at one point in his rehab, Trinton can say, ‘I was just where you were two weeks ago,'" Courson said. "That helps a lot."


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