August 17, 2010:
It’s a freak thing. Troy Woolfolk attempts a tackle, but his foot gets stuck as his body twists right. Troy’s right ankle turns the wrong way, and his body crumples to the ground.
A split second of lost balance turns into a season of lost games. The cornerback’s year is over before it even starts.
Rich Rodriguez has just three Big Ten wins in his Michigan tenure. The Wolverines are under investigation by the NCAA for conditioning violations. He’s about to begin arguably the most important season of his head coaching career — now without Troy, his senior cornerback and one of his team’s most vocal and experienced leaders.
“That was probably as disheartening a day I’ve had in a long time, from an injury standpoint,” Rodriguez says, looking back. “Not only was it a tough injury and everybody saw it, but because that was a position we could least afford it. He was the one rock-solid guy we knew we’d have there — the veteran, the leader and all that. Everybody was deflated. It was one of those deals, you say, ‘This can’t happen.’ ”
There’s a reason cornerbacks compare their position to being on an island. One-on-one with the opponent’s best receiver, the spotlight can’t shine any brighter.
For Troy, the loneliest position just got lonelier. He lies alone in a hospital bed. He feels friendships fade away. He hobbles around on crutches instead of running to touch the banner in the Big House.
But there’s one thing Troy — or “T-Woolf,” his invented alter-ego — can turn to, a way to alleviate some of the loneliness.
Even though T-Woolf will be absent, Troy will be on the sidelines coaching and cheering for Michigan till all the air has vacated my lungs.
17 Aug 11:50 pm via Echofon
Troy’s injury hits junior wide receiver Darryl Stonum nearly as hard as it does Rodriguez.
“I think I took it worse than (Troy) did,” Stonum says. “When I went back to the room, I was getting teary-eyed for him. He was smiling, saying, ‘You all go out there and do what you’re supposed to do.’ He kept his spirits up better than I did.”
As teammates grapple with the reality of the injury, Troy heads to the hospital. On the way, he texts his father, Butch.
“I think my season’s over,” he writes as the shock of the afternoon’s event wears off.
Butch calls his son to make sure he isn’t kidding. Troy’s a jokester, but this isn’t a laughing matter.
A few days later, after Butch and his wife Regina fly up to Ann Arbor from Sugar Land, Texas, Troy undergoes surgery for a dislocated ankle and broken fibula at the University of Michigan hospital.
Regina stays with Troy for a few days. Butch stays for a week longer. It’s a tag-team effort, they say.
Butch cooks for his son, cleans the apartment and walks “the damn dog.” The damn dog — as Butch calls it — is Julius, a mix between a lab and a beagle. After Butch leaves, he hires someone to come walk Julius twice a day.
Butch says: “It was pretty easy when I was there. … It’s after those two weeks that it got hard.”
“I was basically bed-ridden,” Troy says. “I couldn’t get up and do stuff because I had to keep my leg elevated.”
Troy watches the pounds slip off his six-foot frame. He drops 20 pounds in the first month, and his legs get skinny.
All he can do is lie around with his right leg up and watch his body deteriorate, a body that had been so fit and so ready for a strong senior season.
“That’s the worst part of it because this summer, I put the time in,” Troy says. “I stayed in the weight room. I stayed on the field trying to get my speed up. To have it all taken away from you is just a big slap in the face. It makes it seem like I wasted all that time. I have to go back and do it all over again.”
The physical struggle is an uphill battle. But according to Butch, the mental recovery could be the hardest part. That’s what he has to prepare his son for.
At times like this is when you see who are your real friends are!!!!!!!!!!!!
30 Aug 10:44 pm via Echofon
Butch is no stranger to on-field success at Michigan. He became the Wolverines’ all-time leading rusher in 1981 with 3,861 yards, a mark that has since been surpassed.
But he’s also no stranger to devastating injuries. Butch’s seven-year NFL career ended in 1988 when he blew out his knee in the Detroit Lions’ third game of the season. Surgery followed, but he never made it back onto a professional football field.
So Butch knows a little something about lying in a hospital room, watching his own football career turn into a major question mark. But the football questions take a backseat to the emotional ones.
“He was just telling me that people are going to start to fade away — all your friends are going to fade away from you,” Troy says. “Life is going to change from the way you know it now. You just have to expect that. Expect people to go away from you so you won’t be hurt.”
Butch encourages Troy to stay connected — go watch practice, watch game film, give the defensive backs pointers.
“Injured players can really get lost and separated from the team,” Butch says. “I didn’t want that to happen for him.”
Troy lives alone — well, besides Julius. Since he doesn’t like living with roommates, he doesn’t really get to see his teammates as much during his rehab process.
It’s not just the living arrangement, though. It’s the out-of-sight, out-of-mind way college students naturally act.
“I don’t think it’s a conscious decision of people just leaving, it’s just that since they can’t benefit from knowing you in a certain way, they just tend to forget about you,” Troy says. “Some of my close friends even on the football team don’t call as much, don’t talk or anything.
“I understand. It could be just because they’re busy with the season now. I was always so busy myself.”
There’s no sense of sadness in Troy’s eyes. His voice remains steady. He knows it’s just a fact of post-injury life.
But as November rolls around and upper-body workouts pick up, Troy runs into his teammates more often in Schembechler Hall. Rodriguez says he sees Troy in the weight room nearly every day.
“It’s probably hard when you’re first injured because you want to be in there and you feel like, ‘Man, I should be playing.’ It’s hard to watch — especially Troy, because he’s a competitor,” Rodriguez says.
Teammates laugh when they talk about how hard Troy has worked to be around the team as much as possible. They say he likes to drive Rodriguez’s golf cart around the practice field — anything to be close to the action.
Off the field, Troy still sees some teammates on a regular basis. He and Stonum, who have been close since their days as teammates at Dulles High School in Texas, play video games and spend time at each other’s places often.
But life is a little quieter now. And nothing makes Troy feel more alone than watching Michigan football games from the stands or his couch.
16 Oct 4:29 pm via Echofon
It’s the second quarter of the Iowa game, and Troy is out of words to tweet to his nearly 1,500 followers.
Michigan gives up consecutive touchdowns, and suddenly the Hawkeyes have a commanding 21-7 lead. The Wolverines are on their way to losing their second game of the season as Iowa picks apart Michigan’s secondary.
“To watch Troy watch a Michigan football game on TV, I mean, he’s working it like a coach — except he doesn’t have a headset on and can’t make any calls,” Butch says. “He’s criticizing the defense, being critical of the good things they do, the bad things they do. ‘He’s out of position right here.’ ‘Do this right here.’ ‘Come up and hit him.’ “
During games, Troy has to find a way to relieve these frustrations. Good thing his cell phone is an arm’s reach away. And that phone has a Twitter app.
Troy jokes that it’s not always the best idea to tweet during games. He’s landed himself in trouble for messages like “Kicker wanted” — a tweet sent after Seth Broekhuizen missed a field goal against Massachusetts to make the Wolverines 1-for-5 on the season.
Some of Troy’s most frustrating moments, however, come when he’s watching the defense — or more specifically, the secondary.
“The hardest part is just looking at the games and seeing how I would be able to impact the team, make them that much better,” Troy says. “I see our defense struggling. I feel like it’s kind of my fault because of my injury, and I can’t help them out.”
Troy says he didn’t mind watching the Connecticut game, when the defense let up 10 points. But starting the next Saturday at Notre Dame, opponents began tossing touchdowns at will. Even backup quarterbacks, like Penn State’s Matt McGloin, put up near-Heisman stats against the Wolverine secondary.
Excluding the Connecticut and Purdue games, Michigan surrenders more than 36 points per game.
Troy started every game last year — six at corner, six at safety — and posted a career-best 46 tackles.
Teammates notice Troy’s absence on a daily basis, not just in games.
“Normally, corners are kind of quiet. They’re not physical or aggressive in the way you think a linebacker or defensive lineman would be,” redshirt junior defensive end Ryan Van Bergen says. “But Troy brings a really aggressive attitude, mentality to the secondary. I think a lot of guys look to him for leadership by example.”
The Wolverines planned on leaning on that aggression on and off the field in 2010. In the offseason, All-Big Ten cornerback Donovan Warren passed on his final season at Michigan to enter the NFL Draft. Justin Turner, the team’s highest-rated cornerback out of high school, left the program before the season got underway.
Once Woolfolk goes down, the secondary is left with paper-thin — and young — depth. Fifth-year senior James Rogers, a career backup who has shuffled between wide receiver and cornerback the past four years, is the lone upperclassman left on the depth chart.
Redshirt sophomore J.T. Floyd starts in Woolfolk’s place until Floyd’s own season-ending ankle injury in early November.
Essentially, Woolfolk’s injury sets off a chain reaction that leads to three true freshman corners being forced to play this year. All three would have been prime redshirt candidates, particularly Courtney Avery — who starts for the first time against Illinois on Nov. 6. Avery spent 2009 playing quarterback in high school. Twelve months later, he’s a starting cornerback in a Big Ten game.
“This is probably unprecedented, to play (this many freshmen),” Rodriguez says. “It was a perfect storm of injuries and misfortune that got us here.”
A perfect storm that leads to many imperfect performances.
@CornellStone22 we started together and now we finish together. Next year the top CB and WR in nation going to be from the same highschool.
12 Nov 2:31 pm via Echofon
Troy and Stonum (@CornellStone22) tweet at each other a lot. It’s just another way for Troy to stay connected to his friends and teammates.
But as the season progresses, his tweets become less about this season and more about the next. And so does the discussion.
Stonum can’t wait to get his practice opponent back. He says he’s missed going against him one-on-one and the trash-talking that comes with it. And even sometimes, the bizarre stories that follow, like the time Troy sneezed while Stonum was going up for the ball. The receiver lost focus, laughed and received a verbal lashing from the coaches.
Troy can’t wait to get back to his island, either. Butch says he talks about next season all the time.
“He’s a college kid who tries to play it cool, but he’s so fired up and anxious for next year,” Butch says. “He thinks he’s learned so much about the mental aspect of the game, having been forced to watch it combined with the physical aspect that he thinks he’ll be so far advanced next year.”
The games that Troy watches each Saturday? Well, the freshmen play in them. And while the young players don’t always play exceptionally well, they gain experience they can’t get on the practice field.
Troy thinks another summer of workouts and fall camp will help him get back into playing shape, and they’ll help younger players get tougher, which is something he thinks needs to improve throughout the defense.
“The secondary has the potential to be the strength of the defense next year,” Van Bergen says. “I really think that the criticism they’ve been taking this year, they’re going to have motivation to get better. The players they get back in J.T. and Troy, the experience that they’ll have with the young guys — I think they’ll be really strong.”
Sept. 3, 2011 will mark the first day of Troy’s “senior” season as a Wolverine, one that will begin 364 days later than it should have. He’ll be taking graduate-level classes.
This wasn’t how his career was supposed to go. But the difference is the one thought driving him, motivating him throughout this fall — that while things may never turn out how he expected them to, they might turn out better.
“(Doctors) said the surgery and everything went great, and he should be back 100 percent,” Rodriguez says. “Sometimes when you lose something, it makes you want it that much more. I think he’ll come back even hungrier next year.”