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From blue chip to blue books: Antonio Bass's injury and recovery

Jake Fromm/Daily
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Magazine Staff Writer
Published February 2, 2010

Through the blur of heavy sedation, Antonio Bass opened his eyes to find the entire Michigan football coaching staff peering down at him.

Bass was lying in a bed at the University of Michigan Hospital, his right leg throbbing with what felt like a very distant pain. Bass had been a natural athlete his entire life and up until this point, the worst injury he had ever sustained was a slight ankle roll in a high school football game. But now in April 2006, his first Spring Practice session with the Michigan football team, Bass, a quarterback/receiver and one of the most promising sophomores on the team, was facing what would soon become a career-ending — and life-altering — injury.

He was startled at the procession of maize-and-blue-clad coaches, filtering through his room all hours of the day. They had sat there long after his initial knee surgery. Bass says it must have been hours – though, after going under the knife, he admits he had no idea how long it had actually lasted.

To this day, Bass maintains that Michigan was the right choice for him, especially after witnessing just how much the football staff had cared for him and worried over him during his years-long rehabilitation process, just as any family member would have.

After he woke, his wits slowly coming back to him, Bass began to joke with the coaches, same as always. But the coaches didn’t feel much like bantering. They knew something he didn’t.

Before Bass had woken from anesthesia, his doctor had said that, in his 30-plus years in the medical field, he had never seen a worse, more freak-accident injury. It was baffling, the doctor said, especially since it happened during a normal, non-contact football practice.

“The doctor said it was like I had fallen off a three-story building and landed straight on my leg,” Bass remembers.
Although a return to the football field, where Bass was expected to contribute that fall, was the ultimate goal, his immediate concern was simply to walk again.

Five years later, the possibility of ever playing football competitively again, let alone recreationally, has been completely ruled out. The risk of re-injury to the tender knee is just too great. The doctors say Bass could jog if he wanted, but only short distances before his leg gets stiff. And he could probably play a game of pickup basketball, that is, if he could take it easy — though he hasn’t tried, because he knows his fierce competitive nature would force him to test the restrictions of his newly limited athleticism.

“He was probably going to go places,” his mother, Tami, said in a phone interview. “He might have even been able to get to the (National Football) League. But you can’t let things like that get you down. You’ve got to be able to let it go.”

The Potential: National Signing Day, 2005 — the year before Scouts, Inc. first ranked its top 150 and the buzz around college football recruiting became an Internet obsession — was quickly approaching, and Lloyd Carr sat at home, looking through his strong incoming class.

There was one player, though, who was still holding out. Widely considered one of the best recruits in the 2005 class, Bass, the Jackson, Mich. native, was playing his cards very close to his chest. Carr says he could normally get a pretty good feel one way or another about a potential recruit, but with Bass, he had no idea.
Bass’ final list included some of college football’s biggest names: Michigan, Louisiana State, Florida, Virginia Tech and Michigan State.

Late that night, Carr’s phone rang.

“Coach, I just wanted to tell you,” Bass said in a slow, deliberate voice. “I’ve made my decision. I’m going to Michigan State.”

Bass today says he could feel Carr’s normally warm, welcoming personality, the one Carr reserved for all his players, stiffening up. His voice became cold, formal.

“Well, Antonio, I wish you luck up there,” Carr said.

Silence. Bass held in a chuckle as long as he could before blurting out, “Nah, coach, I’m just playing. I’m ready to be a Wolverine.”

There was a brief moment of panic, as Carr set down the receiver to collect himself. Bass thought the coach had hung up the phone and thought he had made a huge mistake.

“It was about a good minute before he said anything,” Bass says, laughing.

“Don’t ever do something like that again,” Carr said. “I will get even with you for that. When you get here, I will get even with you for that.”

Any anger — playful or not — that Carr held for Bass coming into his freshman season was immediately erased as soon as the ultra-talented player arrived on campus. Although most schools had recruited him to play quarterback, Bass’ athletic, run-first style didn’t fit in with Carr’s system, which featured strong passing quarterbacks who were often not the quickest out of the pocket.

The coaches told him, honestly, that he would be moved to receiver.