Towson defensive back Jamal Gay still remembers the play. Last Sept. 7 against North Carolina Central, Gay trotted out as a member of the Tigers’ punt coverage team. He sprinted down the sideline and took a weird step.
Immediately, he knew was something wrong. Gay thought he had hyperextended his left knee and started screaming in pain. Team doctors, who suspected he tore his meniscus and ACL, told him they thought his season was over. An MRI confirmed Gay tore his ACL and both sides of his meniscus. He had surgery shortly after and set his sights on returning to the field for the 2020 season. It was a major setback for a player who was one of two freshmen to play all 12 games in 2018.
Gay still doesn’t know when that next season will be. For athletes like Gay who are recovering from injuries, the COVID-19 pandemic has just been another wrinkle in their return to competition.
On July 17, the CAA announced it would not play football in the fall. Two months later on Sept. 30, the conference announced teams would play a six-game conference schedule with the option to add up to two non-conference games. Then on Oct. 19, Towson announced it would not play in the spring.
“I thought it was going to be something that would come be here for a month or two and then we would be back to normal,” Gay said. “I didn’t expect it to carry on this long.”
Starting with the lockdowns in March, Gay and other Towson players recovering from injuries had to continue their rehab at home. When he was rehabbing at Towson, Gay had other players to help push him, including linebacker Ricky DeBerry, a graduate student.
Both were supposed to start last year before tearing their ACLs early in the year. DeBerry had started nine games and recorded 34 tackles in 2018 after transferring from Oklahoma, where he played from 2015-2017. The injury to his right knee came during the first game of the 2019 season against The Citadel Aug. 31. He was granted a sixth year of eligibility, which he was planning to use this spring.
When the season was postponed in July, the Richmond, Va., native initially considered transferring for his final year, but he decided to stay at Towson.
“I’m closer to my family,” DeBerry said. “I love the school, so anything I want to accomplish I can do it here. After a long decision and speaking with my family I decided to stay here.”
Once players went home in the spring, team trainers sent Gay and DeBerry workouts to continue their recoveries. Both sent videos back to their trainers to make sure they were on the right track. Besides rehabbing their injured knees, they both went to work staying in shape any way they could.
Gay had a weight bench and some dumbbells for upper body workouts, though he had to get creative for lower body workouts since he didn’t have a squat rack. He compensated by doing a lot of lunges and body weight squats, as well as exercises focused on jumping since those challenged him the most while rehabbing his knee. He would also meet up with teammates from St. John’s College High School and bike from north Washington, D.C., to downtown.
DeBerry made the most of his situation as well, starting with doing wall sits and lunges to get the strength back in his leg. Since he didn’t have a weight bench, DeBerry went old school, doing plenty of jump rope, using his front porch for box jumps and pushing his father’s truck around the neighborhood.
Though both ware disappointed about not being able to play, the extra time means they get to ensure their knees are fully healed. According to the Mayo Clinic, it can take 8 to 12 months for an athlete to return after undergoing ACL surgery. In a normal year, Gay and DeBerry could have potentially rushed their recoveries to return to the field.
“Me thinking about that, that’s what really saved my mindset and helped me stay positive with the situation,” Gay said. “Especially with the ACL, the longer you wait before returning to your sport, the less chance you have of reinjury. I took this as it might be God telling me I might not be ready. I just need some more time to make sure my knee’s fully healed.”
Both players have since been cleared and are practicing this fall. According to Gay, the team is taking necessary precautions due to COVID-19 and emphasizing that players follow protocols.
Towson practiced in pads for the first time the week of Oct. 12 and had been doing socially distanced workouts before then. In years past, the Tigers usually split into offense and defense for workouts, but this year split into smaller groups to keep players socially distanced.
That’s the closest they’ll get to football for the time being. In a statement, , head coach Rob Ambrose said the team would rather prepare for a full fall season than a shortened spring season.
“We surveyed the guys, more than 75 percent of the team did not want to trade a full season next year for a six-game season this spring,” Ambrose said. “After listening to the players, I could not come up with a good reason on why we should do this.”
Delaying until the fall means different things for Gay and DeBerry. Gay still has two years of eligibility remaining, but DeBerry has to decide if he’ll take a seventh year of eligibility. He already has his bachelor’s degree in human relations from Oklahoma and finished his master’s degree in professional studies at Towson. It’s something DeBerry will consider but knows a lot of factors will play into his choice.
“Ultimately you have to go with a decision 20 years down the line that you made no regrets,” DeBerry said. “Like I know I made the right decision and I wouldn’t change anything.”
Photo Credits: ENP Photography