It’s doubtful that any member of the team was any happier to be on the field again preparing for the season than the senior safety.
After suffering a scary neck and spine injury vs. Ole Miss that forced him to wear a halo and neck brace for months after the injury that looked like it could end his football playing days, Etheridge was running around the football practice fields at full speed on Wednesday night just a couple of weeks after being given the green light to play football this year by AU’s medical staff.
“I was very excited and the team was very enthusiastic,” Etheridge says of the opening practice. “I just jumped right in and got very excited with them so I enjoyed every moment of it.”
Etheridge says he felt great physically and was feeling no ill effects from a very serious injury. Auburn head coach Gene Chizik notes that the team trainers will keep a close eye on the safety and make sure he doesn’t try to do too much, too fast, especially when the pads go on and full contact drills start later this month.
The safety says he isn’t concerned about being able to handle the physical part of the game, but admits, “I don’t know what to expect. The only thing I can do is go out there and play football and do what I love to do.”
Despite missing the final four games of the season, Etheridge finished the 2009 campaign with 52 tackles, which was fifth on the team.
Zac Etheridge had to wear a neck and back brace during his rehab.
Etheridge notes that he put in a lot of hard work to get back to the point where he was cleared to play football again. “They keep telling that no one has ever come back within a year from (this) neck injury so I put in a lot of extra work to be the first. Things have turned out so great so far so I am looking forward to it when I?put the pads on.”
The safety knows there was a major question whether or not he would ever play football again or even be able to live a normal life physically, but notes he likes a challenge and proving skeptics wrong. “I live my whole life off of that,” he says.
“A lot of people said you won’t go to college, a lot of people said you won’t play football,” he recalls. “Every day as a kid you like to hear that because that is what motivates me every day--someone telling me I can’t do anything. Every day I go out there I try to prove them wrong.”
Etheridge is one of three veteran Auburn safeties making a comeback from injuries. Sixth-year senior Aairon Savage missed the entire past two seasons and redshirt junior Mike McNeil was out in 2009.
All three were running around on the practice field and Chizik noted that they looked good in Auburn’s opening practice. Etheridge says the veterans should look good.
“There is a lot talent back there and a lot of experience,” he says of the secondary. “There should be no excuses. We should be a great secondary.
Etheridge has been a key player in the Auburn secondary and the senior from Charles Henderson High in Troy is a three-year starter.
“Coach Chizik was excited out there,” the senior adds. “He sees the potential in his players and he is going to push us and have fun with us.”
Savage is also coming back from a potential career-ending injury. The safety missed the 2009 season with an Achilles injury after missing the 2008 season following major knee surgery.
Commenting on his long rehab to get back on the field again, Savage says, “It’s tough, but Zac and I didn’t do it alone. We did it with the help of our friends, our families and the community. The community was great. And, of course, our teammates. That made it a lot easier.”
Savage, a starter in 2007, says he felt good at team’s first preseason practice. “I went through the spring so it wasn’t foreign,” he points out. “I’m past all the injuries now. I’m just focused on getting better every day as a team.”
To make that happen, Savage says he and Etheridge are going to do their best to set a good example on and off the field and help lead the Tigers to a memorable season. “It’s very important because we’re trying to lead the way for them,” he says. “We’re trying to build a foundation not only for this year, but for years to come. What better way to do it.”
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