Trauma can affect memory in so many ways. Some repress or forget the details in the haze of the shock. For Tony Adams, his injury only heightened his recall.
"We were playing De Smet (on Sept. 10)," said Adams, a St. Louis University High senior standout football player. "We just got a safety, so they were kicking off to us. The return was supposed to go right, but I saw something going left. I didn't see anything going right, so I went left. Then I was going down the sidelines. I tried to cut back, but my foot kind of got stuck in the turf. Then I got hit, and I just heard it pop. I just knew something was wrong. I couldn't get up."
His friends offered Adams encouragement as they waited for final word on the severity of the knee injury. A coach tried to lift his spirits by telling him he'd play the next game and simply wear a brace. But Adams had an inkling that it was more serious, and the MRI results confirmed his suspicion.
“Everybody was in good spirits until I got the call that I had torn my ACL," Adams said.
Robbing an athlete of his health is like stealing a singer's voice or an artist's hands. Sitting on the sideline rocked Adams, a superb athlete who committed to Illinois after a superb summer of workouts. He went from running 40-yard dashes in 4.5 seconds to swaying slowly on crutches.
Adams hates his injured state. But he said he doesn't spend much time feeling sorry for himself. He's just eager to be an athlete again.
“I didn’t spend too much time mourning on it," Adams said. "I think I cried when I first heard it, but after that I just felt like it was just a bump in the road. It was just something that was going to happen in my life and something that I have to overcome.”
Road to recovery
Adams had Division I interest as a junior, but he entered his senior season with a different kind of hype.
Illinois offered in June, a day after Adams shined at the Illini's satellite camp in St. Louis. Just a few days later, Missouri offered after he shined at a Tigers' camp. A short but intense two-month border war for his services ended with Adams committing to Illinois on Aug. 12.
The SLUH receiver/defensive back -- who the Illini plan to play at cornerback -- was eager to prove he was Big Ten worthy. That's why he said what hurt most was not playing against rival Christian Brothers College High, which features top 2018 Division I recruiting targets Kamryn Babb and Cameron Brown.
“It’s a huge game and not being able to go up against top recruits in the nation like Kam Babb and playing against that competition, it’s painful,” Adams said. “I have to prove it. Nobody ever gave me nothing. I’ve been working for everything I got. I feel like I still got to prove myself, so that’s why I wanted to play, to show them how much I’ve progressed and how much I got better. I didn’t get to do that, so people couldn’t see that.”
Three months after suffering the injury, Adams has attacked his rehabilitation. He wants to attack it harder, but his doctors and coaches are urging him to take it slow.
“It’s going well, but it’s kind of slow," Adams said. "I’m impatient, so I got to take it day by day. Rehab compared to working out, it’s nothing. Rehab hasn’t been bad. I’m just constantly repping the same stuff over and over and over again. In a sense, it gets kind of tedious and kind of boring just doing the same thing over and over again. But it helps so much, so you got to do that stuff.”
Adams said he has progressed to doing agility and short-area footwork drills. He has not been cleared to run yet, though that is the next step.
“The next checkpoint is getting the swelling down and trying to get my knee to look like my normal knee," Adams said. "If I can do that, he said he’s going to clear me to start running.”
Those who suffer torn ACLs usually aren't cleared for full activity until at least six months. Though for top athletes, the recovery process -- both physically and mentally -- can take longer to get back to 100 percent of their pre-injury levels.
But with the disappointment of a senior season cut short and a desire to make an immediate impact at Illinois, Adams is chomping at the bit. The Illini coaches are telling him to take small bites.
“Right now, they kind of tell me to take it slow and take it day by day," Adams said. "I’m listening, but in my own mind I want to push myself. They just take it slow. They tell me that I still have my scholarship and things like that.”
Adams' next opportunity to prove it will be at the college level. He will sign his national letter of intent on Feb. 1. But he said that day won't bring much hoopla for him. He's more focused on what happens on the field.
“Honestly, I don’t think about it too much," Adams said. "Illinois, if everything goes right, I’ll be going there. If that happens, I can’t wait to get up there and to learn the playbook and sit in meetings. I don’t care about anything else. I don’t care about the hype of Signing Day. That stuff doesn’t concern me at all.”
That "if everything goes right" line likely will raise some eyebrows. So, Adams was asked if he has any doubt that he will sign with Illinois.
“No, sir," Adams said. "It’s Illinois. I’ll be attending there, as long as they show the interest that they still want me, I’ll still be going there.”
That "if they still want me" line may raise the other eyebrow. But a source said there is no question Illinois wants him -- badly.
One other program has continued to recruit Adams: Missouri.
“It’s something that came up before, but I think if everything goes right, then there’s no need for me to switch schools or anything like that," Adams said. "I’m not that kind of person.”
Adams will give the Illinois secondary much-needed speed, athleticism and play-making ability. In just four games as a senior, Adams scored seven touchdowns, totaled 268 receiving yards, three interceptions and one return touchdown.
There's no doubt Adams can play ball. He's just working toward answering the when.
Adams said his injury helped him learn a lot about the opportunity in front of him. Trauma also can affect perspective in many different ways.
"I think I've learned a little bit of everything because I wasn’t on the field so I had to sit back and watch," Adams said. "Sitting back and watching things and observing everything, I think it made me more aware of my surrounding, like learning my real friends. Just watching people in general, I think I learned a lot through this process.
“I couldn’t explain it, but it’s making me want it more than ever. Just waiting for my opportunity, people just need to know I’m coming.”