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Ever since it happened, Brandon Tate has watched the games here, surrounded by his father, Barry, his mother, Lesley, his brother Barry, his Grandma Nellie, his 3-year-old son, Brandon, and a gaggle of aunts and cousins and family friends, more than a dozen folks packed into the living room of Lesley’s house in Burlington, N.C. The room is littered with all of the trophies Tate has collected during his athletic career. A Carolina blue #87 jersey hangs on the wall as a reminder of the college player he used to be.
This afternoon Tate is dressed in the UNC sweat suit he wore on his way to every game. He pushes a green-and-white-striped easy chair directly in front of the TV and props up his right leg on an ottoman to watch North Carolina, his team, play Maryland. As he devours a plate of chicken wings, Tate shifts from cheerleader to coach, explaining to anyone who’ll listen what’s gone wrong on that last play and making mental notes he’ll share next week with Trase Jones, UNC’s walk-on holder, who has somehow replaced the best kick returner in college football.
Tate is so into the game that he sometimes gets lost in it, which explains the moments when he is shimmying and juking in his chair. “Every time I see a third down and our defense gets the stop, my mind still tells me it’s time to get in the game,” Tate says. “Then when the punt is in the air, I’ll be looking at the field for a hole and in my head I’ll be making the cut to find that hole.”
Just before UNC receives a kickoff trailing 17-15 in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter, the color commentator says, “I’m thinking of Brandon Tate right now. This is where they could really use him.” Brandon’s mom shushes the crowd when her son’s name is mentioned and Tate blushes a little, grateful for the shout-out. Moments later, UNC quarterback Cam Sexton’s pass is intercepted and the Tar Heels lose a game everybody in the room believes they should have won.
When Tate is asked later if the outcome of the game might have been different if he was still playing, he struggles to answer, recognizing how the question pits his humility against his common sense. “The team fought real hard, but we didn’t really have any big plays,” Tate says. “If I was there we pretty much would have probably had a better chance of winning…. and I…. pretty much think we probably would have won.…I just wish I was there.”
The postcards touting him for All-America were ready to mail out to the college football nation. They trumpeted how Tate is the NCAA career leader in combined kick return yards and how he was about to break the NCAA record for kickoff return yards, even though wary opponents had essentially stopped kicking the ball to him. The Tar Heel senior was leading the ACC in all-purpose yards and had become the runaway leader for conference Player of the Year. There was also a Brandon Tate webpage, Tatein08.com, and even a video in which Tate personally made his case for All-America votes (“Tate in ’08, Vote for Brandon”). The campaign was set to be launched on the Monday after the Notre Dame game.
Then, suddenly, all that noise coaches like to talk about playing every play like it’s your last, well, that made a lot more sense to Brandon Tate.
One moment you are the biggest player in the biggest game of the biggest season in the last decade of UNC football. The next your college career is over. In an instant you go from All-America to all done.
Tate was returning a punt late in the first quarter against Notre Dame when suddenly a gold helmet smashed into his right leg. “I thought it was a little bruise or something,” Tate remembers. “I thought I was going to sit out for two or three plays and then come back in. Then the doctor sat me down on the table and he told me I’d be going into the trainer’s room. I’m an athlete, so I thought, ‘Dang, that can’t be good.’”
UNC head athletic trainer Scott Trulock suspected from his initial diagnosis that Tate had suffered a serious knee injury. He told only UNC coach Butch Davis, so the news wouldn’t leak to Tate’s teammates, whose focus might wander away from the game at hand.
Tate watched the second half of the game on a television in the training room with a bandage wrapped around his knee and little Brandon by his side. He had suffered his share of injuries during his Tar Heel career, but he had begun to suspect that he’d never been broken like this before. As the Tar Heels wrapped up their 29-24 victory, Tate saw jubilant UNC fans storm the field and then heard his teammates celebrating as they charged up the tunnel past the training room. Moments later, doctors informed Tate that he’d torn his anterior cruciate ligament and his medial collateral ligament and that his college career was over. Tate’s initial reaction was natural: ”Are you sure?”
“I was heartbroken,” Tate says. “My mother and father were there and my little son and we were all heartbroken. I put my head down and cried. My parents cried.”
Before Coach Davis addressed his team in the locker room following the win, he sought out the crestfallen Tate, who was sitting in Trulock’s office. Davis kneeled down in front of Tate and said, “I’ve known a lot of great NFL players who have had the same injury. Michael Irvin. Reggie Wayne. It ain’t over. Keep faith. Get ready to rehab really hard and everything will be all right.“
For Tate, who had turned 21 years old a few days earlier, this was a call to manhood. “When Coach Davis told me that, I picked my head up, wiped my tears away and I was ready to look forward.”
As the wild victory party raged on outside the office, gradually other coaches and players began to learn of the severity of Tate’s injury. A sympathetic receiving line formed, prompting the bizarre phenomenon in which a victim is compelled to be the strongest person in the room. Tate took it upon himself to buoy his disappointed teammates. “It’s going to be OK,” he said over and over. “Don’t you guys worry about me. I’m going to be OK.”
He stands in a small pool that has become his second home for the last five weeks. Tate gingerly bends his knee against the resistance of the water to work on his flexibility, forward and back, forward and back, forward and back, forward and back, teaching the joint how to work right again. There is a six-inch scar running along the inside of his knee.
Tate crutches his way to rehab twice a day for a total of four hours, six days a week. The only day Tate doesn’t go to work is on game days. He is alone in the room where the pool is located, but he can stare through a large window into UNC’s primary training room where his teammates are being treated for sprained ankles, sore shoulders, tight hamstrings, getting themselves fixed up to play in the N.C. State game on Saturday.
Tate is one of the countless casualties of a college football season, too easily forgotten, who come to realize that the sport stops for no man, even if he’s a potential All-America. Like so many athletes who suffer season-ending injuries, Tate doesn’t always feel like part of his team anymore. He never goes to practice, but he still eats dinner with the guys afterward. He hopes to watch the N.C. State game on the Tar Heel sideline. On Saturday Tate will step on the field at Kenan Stadium for the first time since the Notre Dame game when he participates in his Senior Day festivities and then he plans to watch his teammates battle N.C. State from the Tar Heel sideline. He says he hasn’t thought back on the hit that ended his UNC career even once since the moment it happened.
He looks ahead at a peculiar calendar, one in which days pass too fast and too slow at the same time. The normal recovery time for a torn knee ligament would be six to nine months from his Oct. 15 surgery date, but because Tate tore both his ACL and MCL, the equation is more complicated. By the time of the NFL combine at the end of February, the goal is for Tate to have full strength and range of motion in his knee. Three weeks later at UNC’s NFL Pro Day, where scouts are invited to watch Tar Heel prospects work out, the hope is that Tate could be jogging. Then two weeks before the draft in late April, NFL staffs will have one last chance to look at his updated medical reports. After that, they will be gambling on Tate’s recuperation, and NFL teams generally don’t wager high draft picks on players who could spend their rookie season on injured reserve. Trulock won’t say that Tate can’t be fully ready to play in the NFL next August, but the math is problematic.
Trulock, who worked as a trainer in the NFL for 11 years with four different teams, understands exactly how teams will try to evaluate Tate.
“They will balance his medical information against his potential,” Trulock says. “The challenge for NFL staffs is deciding if Brandon is going to be ready to play next season. That will certainly affect his draft status. That said, Brandon has put up some huge numbers and he has great film and all it takes is one out of 32 teams to fall in love with him and they could end up drafting him very high.”
Tate doesn’t talk much about it, but he understands more than anyone how he’s got family depending on him to make NFL money that can better all of their lives.
“It’s hard for people to appreciate Brandon’s circumstances,” Trulock says. “If you were a business owner and you’d built a business and it was your family’s livelihood and one day a tornado came and just wiped it out and you had no insurance, that’s essentially what Brandon is faced with. He was devastated the day he got hurt, but by the next day he already embraced his challenge. There’s a normal psychological progression that anybody goes through when they’re injured: denial, anger, depression and acceptance. For some players, that cycle can take weeks or months. Brandon worked though all that in a day or two.”
A few hours alone in a pool every day gives Tate a lot of time to think. Sometimes he daydreams about April 25, when he will be back in Burlington surrounded by his parents, Grandma Nellie, little Brandon and the rest of the crew, sitting in that easy chair watching the NFL draft and waiting for his name to be read at the podium or, at least, slide along the crawl. He hears the rumors that he may have dropped from a possible first round pick to a third or fourth rounder or lower, but he knows the draft is an inexact science, even for healthy players. “Hopefully I can still be drafted in the first round, hopefully,” Tate says. “That’s what I’m shooting for.”
He’d love to be chosen by the home team, the Panthers, to go from Carolina to Carolina, but he says getting picked by any team would be a blessing.
“Every day in rehab I’m thinking about my future,” Tate says. “I think it’s going to be real, real bright if I do everything I’m supposed to do. I’ve got faith that I’ll be able to play football way sooner than anybody thinks. The sky’s the limit for me.”
Then Tate stares down at his knee underwater. Forward and back, forward and back, forward and….
Tim Crothers is the author of The Man Watching: A Biography of Anson Dorrance, the Unlikely Architect of the Greatest College Sports Dynasty Ever.
Click here to send an email to Tim Crothers.