Sep 6, 2013
By Matt Winkeljohn
When he walks back on the field this afternoon at Jordan Hare Stadium, Zac Etheridge may tingle a bit as the former Auburn safety picks up a nice honor before a fan base that is sure to stand in feteing a member of the Tigers’ 2010 national championship team.
The Georgia Tech defensive graduate assistant knows a thing or two about tingling on that field.
Etheridge sensed it was bad while assisting on a tackle in an Oct. 31, 2009 game against Ole Miss, a teammate came crashing into the top of his head.
He broke his neck in Jordan Hare.
“I knew immediately,” he said. “A lot of people though I was knocked out, but instantly I felt the break and I was awake the whole time. I knew what was going on. I was just nervous.
“There was a tingling down my back and my whole body going numb. I was paralyzed for what felt like forever, but it was just about 15 minutes.”
And just nine months later, the Troy, Ala., native was playing ball again for the Tigers.
So now you know why today Etheridge will receive the James Owens Courage Award, given annually to a current or former football player, “who has displayed courage in the face of adversity, distinguishing himself while contributing to the betterment of Auburn University,” according to the school website.
Etheridge, who is in his first year as a graduate assistant at Tech, broke his fifth vertabra and tore ligaments in his neck as a result of what amounted to a compression injury. “My head was smushed straight down,” he said. “It’s not meant to go like that. Usually, your neck bends left or right, forward or back, not down.”
Before leaving Auburn that afternoon, Etheridge also was diagnosed with a blood clot behind his second vertabra. By the time he reached a Birmingham hospital, that problem had begun to abate. Ever the optimist, Etheridge took that as the first sign that something special was to happen in the months ahead.
“The story is so unique because I had the blood clot, and that’s what made it so powerful and made me know it was God’s work,” he said. “By the time they had transferred me to Birmingham that night, it had started going away.”
You might think there was an operation. Guess again.
“I could have gone with surgery. I chose the route without surgery, and let it heal on its own. If I had surgery, I would not have been able to play again,” said Etheridge, who that fall was on his way to making the SEC Academic Honor Roll and graduating that semester with a degree in public administration.
“They would have fused the C-5 with a bone … I went with my gut instinct, and had faith in God.”
There was no guarantee that Etheridge would play football again even if the neck healed itself, but it was a guarantee that he wouldn’t play again if he had the fusion surgery.
So into a cervical brace he went, 24/7 save showers, for weeks and weeks and weeks. And then, “Once I got out of that, it was non-stop rehab three times a day trying to build strength back in my neck.”
It all worked. On the day fall practice began in 2010, doctors cleared Etheridge to play. He would finish second on the team with 69 combined tackles and assists, and oh yeah, help the Tigers win a national championship.
Etheridge was the Cam Newton of the defense, calling shots on his side of the ball. You can make the case that his story from that season is better than that of the Heisman Trophy winner, right?
“The first game back [the 2010 season opener at Jordan Hare against Arkansas State], it was kind of a relief because … you have your ups and downs with therapy, and then the doctor, and then with the game you just have fun,” he said.
“When I ran onto the field, I was excited as all get-out, ready to do it all again. Game one was the national championship for me. To end it that way just capped everything for me.”
The NFL’s Oakland Raiders signed Etheridge as an undrafted free agent in the spring of 2011. His playing days soon ended with a knee injury, a settlement and not long after that a call from the past.
“Every kid’s dream who plays football is to make it to the NFL. I got to sign an NFL contract, tore up my knee, settlement, went to train a little bit,” he said. “One of my top guys as a mentor, a coach, called about an opportunity to get into coaching. I highly respect him for that.”
So Etheridge in 2012 joined Penn State defensive coordinator Ted Roof, who’d been the defensive coordinator at Auburn during the title run.
As you surely know, Roof’s back home now, at Georgia Tech, and Etheridge has followed him. He’s studying public policy, and still playing … as a protege forging a career.
“I saw myself as a coach on the field, but I didn’t know if I was a coach as a profession. If you asked me that 10 years ago, the answer would be no,” he explained. “[Roof] told me with the way I work on the field and know the game, I can be a coach. I wanted to be with him at his alma mater as well, and I’d do anything to help that man.”
The award that Etheridge will receive is named after James Owens, Auburn’s first black football player. Coincidentally, the Tigers’ opponent will be Arkansas State. Comments to email@example.com.
Get Sting Daily in your e-mail box — it’s free! Just register here to get the latest features on Georgia Tech Athletics.