The Central Michigan running back was squarely on NFL scouts' radars after a junior season of 1,492 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns.
Then came a devastating injury — a broken ankle sustained on the fourth carry of the season-opening game at Michigan.
"I'm thinking, ‘It's over. Everything is going to go away.'" Tipton told Packer Report on Tuesday. "I'm sitting there laying in the training room at Michigan and I'm just thinking, ‘Man, it's all over now.' I broke down a little bit."
A few days later, an NFL.com headline proclaimed "Top rusher Zurlon Tipton lost for season."
Not so fast.
Two weeks after surgery, Tipton was walking. A short time later, he started jogging. Then, about two-and-a-half months after his season was supposedly over, Tipton was back in the lineup and scoring a touchdown in a nationally televised game against Ball State on Nov. 6.
"The medical people were astounded. I've never been around anyone like him," Central Michigan coach Dan Enos said after that game. "He came into my office three days after he had surgery and said he was going to play against Ball State. I said, ‘OK, Zurlon. That's a nice story.' And he did. So, he's an amazing guy."
Tipton could have lobbied the NCAA for a medical redshirt and sixth season of eligibility after missing most of his true freshman season of 2009 with an injury. Instead, with Tipton on course to earn his degree in sports studies, he decided to think the unthinkable.
"I was graduating at the end of the year and I just felt like we had a talented group of running backs behind me, so I decided it was time to get out of the way and let those young guys get a chance at it," Tipton said.
Those young guys had their chance but it was Tipton who was back in the saddle by the end of the season.
After carrying five times for 8 yards and a touchdown in his return against Ball State, Tipton rushed for 114 yards and two touchdowns vs. Western Michigan, 50 yards and a touchdown against UMass and an astounding 216 yards and four touchdowns against Eastern Michigan in a season-ending Senior Day performance. Highlighting that memorable display was an 86-yard touchdown run.
"Man, I was not even close to 100 percent," Tipton said. "Every week, it was rough."
Tipton, who entered the season on the watch list for the Doak Walker Award, which goes to the nation's top running back, rushed for 398 yards and eight touchdowns in five games.
"To be honest with you, I wasn't even thinking about the NFL," Tipton said of his end-of-season comeback. "I had no idea what to expect from the NFL as far as me being on their radar. I'm still surprised at this point that teams are still interested in me after just a four-game season. It's very surprising."
With an inspirational comeback in the books, Tipton turned his attention to getting fully healthy and trying to keep his dreams alive. On March 5, Tipton turned in an impressive pro day in front of scouts. At 6-foot and 223 pounds — the Packers' preferred size for their ball-carriers — he ran his 40-yard dash in 4.70 seconds. In the three-cone drill, which measures a player's lateral agility, he showed off the health of his ankle by turning in a clocking of 6.89 seconds. Among the top eight running backs in this year's draft, as graded by NFL scout Dave-Te' Thomas, Tipton's three-cone time was faster than all but Washington's Bishop Sankey.
"Really, I wanted to show scouts that I could run and everything," he said. "They wanted to see me cut off the bad leg. I think I showed them that I'm ready to make that next step to the NFL. I proved to everybody that I can still cut. I'm ready to roll."
Tipton said he's "absolutely" 100 percent recovered. It's been a long road to get into this position. He has no intention of getting off the fast lane.
"If it's with the Packers or if it's with someone else, as long as I'm playing, that's all I want to do," he said.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.