BY ANDY REID
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.
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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. But that wasn’t completely true — Bass was just too good to keep off the field. On the cusp of the evolution of quarterbacks like Pat White and Terrelle Pryor, Carr, not necessarily known for his offensive innovations, developed a formation for Bass to get the ball in his hands.
“With him, we wanted to develop what is really what they now call the Wildcat,” Carr said. “We had some success with that, and our plans were to expand that package going into the next year.”
His freshman season, Bass ran for almost 100 yards and threw one pass — a 13-yard completion, which Carr called “one of the biggest passes of the season,” in an overtime win over Iowa — from the quarterback position. Bass was also an immediate impact as a receiver. He became a fan favorite for plays like his one-handed catch against Nebraska in the 2005 Alamo Bowl.
“Everyone in the program knew his potential was just off the charts,” Carr said.
“My vibe going into sophomore year was extremely positive,” Bass says. “I worked harder than I ever had before, and everything was coming together for me … playing receiver, I was finally getting the hang of it and showing the coaches what I could do, as well as playing quarterback. Sophomore year, it looked really, really good.”
But, unfortunately, that game against Nebraska would be the last one Bass ever played.
The Injury: Think back to any quarterback that saw significant playing time under Lloyd Carr. Chad Henne, John Navarre, Brian Griese, Tom Brady — there was a pretty prototypical mold for the position while Carr reigned in Schembechler Hall.
Antonio Bass — a 6-foot-2, 200-pound quarterback with a penchant for using his 4.4 40-yard-dash time to its fullest capabilities — was a completely different type of athlete, the type that Michigan football wasn’t used to. But heading into Spring Practice after a successful freshman campaign, Bass, who was fully prepared to be a wide receiver when he first came to Ann Arbor, was listed as No. 2 quarterback on the depth chart behind Henne.
It was a Tuesday afternoon, and Bass was running a bootleg to the right, part of his extended Wildcat package. His feet got tangled with one of the running backs. He stumbled, and planted his right foot — something football players do almost every play.
When asked about the play, Bass sighs, taking a few moments to think. “It’s hard to explain,” he says, “because it all happened so fast.”
His foot stuck in the turf at an odd angle and he fell. At first, he didn’t realize anything was wrong.
“Then I tried to stand up and pain just shot through my whole body,” Bass said. “I looked down and my thigh was going that way and my calf was pointing that way,” with extended fingers, his hands point in opposite directions over his leg. “That’s when I kind of freaked a little bit. I went into shock and was, like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ ”
Every ligament in his leg tore upon impact. His knee completely dismembered, his hamstring pulled, the pain shot through his whole body as the coaches and trainers tried to calm him down.
“I can remember our trainer, Paul Schmitt — I worked with him for 20 years — I could tell by the look on his face that it was pretty bad,” Carr said.
The trainers worked to stabilize the leg and keep Bass from going into shock — there wasn’t much they could do for such a serious injury there on the field.
“It was probably only 10, 20 minutes until the ambulance got there, but it felt like an eternity to me,” Bass says.
His leg was immediately cast in a hard shell from the hip to the foot and he was bedridden for almost two months — and that’s before he could start the grueling rehabilitation process with Michigan athletic trainer and clinical specialist Vahan Agbabian.
As much damage as there was to his ligaments, Bass still had hope of rehabbing and an eventual return to football. But when they got him to the hospital and performed the first of many surgeries he would have to endure, the doctors discovered significant damage to the nerve that runs from the knee to the foot.
When he finally got the enormous cast off, his foot hung from his ankle, limp, useless. The doctors told him he would likely never get feeling back in it. With rehab and practice, he could learn to walk on it — maybe not much else.
“You know, you take the tiniest things your body can do for granted,” Bass says, moving his left ankle up and down, up and down. “You see that? You can never imagine not being able to do that until you can’t anymore.”
The Impact: Bass and the Michigan training staff basically had to work from scratch. He started by simply sitting up and lifting his thigh up and down, and even that was excruciating.
And while his thigh and knee were gaining strength, there was nothing to do about his drop foot, other than to hope and pray the surgeries would eventually help.
“What I marvel at is the positive attitude he had through the whole thing,” Carr says. “I can’t say there weren’t times when he got a little down, but if you know him at all, you know he’s such a positive guy.”
All the waiting and wishing finally paid off. More than two years after the injury and months after his last surgery, Bass felt a twitch in his foot.
He may never play football again — he may not even be able to run without feeling that stiffness in his leg — but none of that mattered when he saw his foot move.
“I honestly never thought I was going to get it back,” Bass said. “I was just so happy to be able to move that foot.”
It was well after the 2007 season, after Carr had retired, which, to Bass, was a wake-up call to him that football was really done forever. Rich Rodriguez came in, replaced all the coaches Bass had gotten to know so well, and began a new regime.
Bass still rooms with Michigan running back Carlos Brown, and he still hangs out with guys on the team, but he stopped showing up to practice and being around the program as much.
But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t still care.
Although the rehab process was excruciating, Bass says, hands down, the hardest part of the injury is watching Michigan games, most of which he views alone in his room because it’s too much to stand on the sidelines and observe, rather than compete.
“The rehab stuff, that’s all physical. I can handle that,” Bass said. “But watching the games and missing the sport, that’s mental. It’s all up here. That’s a lot harder to deal with.”
That mental agony was never worse than Nov. 18, 2006, the first Michigan-Ohio State game since his injury — the classic No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup the day after legendary coach Bo Schembechler passed away. It was one of the most dramatic Michigan games ever, and for Bass, it was almost torture.
He said he had to go back home to Jackson to watch with his mother because he couldn’t watch it alone. Hobbling through the living room, trying to pace back-and-forth, Tami kept yelling at her son to calm down.
He wasn’t supposed to be on his feet, yet. But he couldn’t help it.
“Just everything about that game was so overwhelming,” Bass says.
As much as he missed football, Bass was able to put his post-injury life in perspective pretty easily. He never thought about dropping out or transferring. He knew that a degree from the University of Michigan was too good an opportunity to pass up.
“When I first came here, I knew that football was necessary for me as a tool,” he said. “I was blessed with the ability to play football, but it got me to college, a great university. If football never worked out, I knew I would always have a degree. Even at that time, I knew that if one door closed, another would open.”
A Communication Studies major, Bass graduated in December, and he’s walking in May. Currently, he’s working as a sales representative at a local steel manufacturer, applying for jobs across the country and enjoying the time he has left in Ann Arbor.
Football is done, but his life is just beginning.
The Return: On May 1, 2010, Bass will walk through the tunnel at Michigan Stadium for the last time. He won’t have a winged helmet or slap the “Go Blue” banner. He won’t walk arm-in-arm with his mother over the block ‘M,’ the rite of passage for every Michigan football senior before his last home game.
The grandstands won’t be nearly as full as they were Nov. 19, 2005, the last time he stepped onto that field in his uniform, when 111,591 fans packed the Big House against Ohio State.
Instead, he’ll walk out in his cap and gown, with his family in attendance, and take his seat among the rest of the class of 2010, knowing that, without football — and without the agony of his horrific injury — he would not be where he is right now.
“I’m loving it,” Tami said. “Don’t quit school. There’s something more out there for you. He didn’t let it get him down. Sports isn’t everything. You need to get your degree. You’re not guaranteed to get in the League, and if you do, you’re not guaranteed that you won’t get injured when you get there. But you always have your degree.”
Bass is grateful to be here. He thanks God, coach Carr, his mom and his teammates. He admits that, sometimes, he daydreams about getting back on the football field — and it has crossed his mind that his skill-set would have made him the perfect quarterback for Rich Rodriguez’s offense in 2008, what would have been his senior year had he never gotten injured.
But those thoughts are fleeting and fewer nowadays.
And on May 1, in the building in which he once showcased his promising potential, surrounded by the memories of football — the block ‘M’ and the fight song, walking through the tunnel and seeing the expansive stands of Michigan Stadium — he won’t be thinking about football much.
His thought will be occupied by his new college degree — what he really came to the University to achieve — and his future.