Panthers Cockrell suffers serious injury during training camp
If Ross Cockrell had quit, who would blame him?
Countless professional football players, after all, have seen their careers end from far lesser injuries. Nagging ankle sprains, flimsy joints.
Cockrell’s injury, by comparison, was gruesome. During Carolina Panthers training camp last summer, the cornerback collided with receiver Torrey Smith and dropped straight to the ground. He broke both bones in his lower left leg. Coaches stopped practice immediately so Cockrell’s teammates could carry him off the Spartanburg grass.
The sound of his bones snapping still echoed.
And yet this month, during the third week of the Panthers’ voluntary organized team activities, Cockrell was back. He took reps at both outside cornerback and nickel, the role Carolina originally envisioned for the former Charlotte Latin and Duke star when the team signed him to a two-year contract last spring. He jogged, made cuts, caught balls — everything an NFL defensive back must do.
Now, Cockrell knows he isn’t all the way back yet.
“Not yet,” he said Monday. “But by camp? That’ll be about a year, and I think I’ll be good. It’s gonna be a time thing.”
Mental strength, but physical hardships
Richard Rodgers can still see Cockrell, writhing on that training-room table last summer.
Only, the Panthers’ then-secondary coach and current safeties coach doesn’t recall any sense of defeat from his injured player.
“I remember him telling me on that table, ‘Coach, I’ll be back,’” Rodgers said. “His determination and mindset from day one was that he was going to come back, and he was going to be as good — or better.”
Of course that’s easier said than done. Cockrell said the actual rehabilitation process, especially at the beginning, was as mentally taxing as it was physically.
“There are little setbacks here and there, the things you want to do that you can’t quite do yet,” Cockrell recalled. “I guess the old saying is ‘mind over matter,’ so I do my best to keep my mind strong.”
The most difficult aspect of that process, Cockrell said, was something many of us may never even think about:
Learning to walk a second time.
“It’s just a matter of going through it each and every day,” Cockrell said. “Getting the strength back in your leg, and the strength back in your hips and your core because a lot of that just shuts down automatically. So getting that motion down, trusting that my leg is going to be there ... trusting that I’ll be able to do it again, and just taking it one step at a time, literally.”
‘I just want to play football’
When Panthers secondary coach Perry Fewell, a 21-year NFL coaching veteran hired by the team in January, first saw Cockrell work out in late April, it was evident that the cornerback was still limited physically.
“He had a hitch in his stride and (in) the way he was performing,” Fewell said.
But Cockrell also had something else Fewell couldn’t help noticing: a steady, growing confidence.
“You saw daily that he gained confidence with his leg, and even with his mentality carrying his leg. After two weeks of work ... it got smoother,” Fewell said. “I mentioned to him one day, ‘You know you’re getting better every single day?’ And he looked at me with like a surprise on his face, and he says, ‘Yeah, but I still don’t think I have this burst.’
“That’s going to come. But I said, ‘I really can’t tell that you’re favoring your leg ... I said, ‘That’s big-time, man.’”
Now a month and a half after those initial workouts, Rodgers and Fewell say they don’t see any remaining physical limitations for Cockrell.
For his part, Cockrell is still focusing on improving his top-end speed and his “plant-and-drive” out of breaks, but he’s well on his way to challenging for cornerback reps. With Donte Jackson and James Bradberry entrenched as the team’s starting outside cornerbacks, Cockrell will compete to start at nickel as well as backing up those outside positions.
As for Cockrell’s preference between the two positions?
“I just want to play football,” he said with a wide grin. “That’s my preference, especially right now.
“Whatever I can do to get out there, that’s what I’ll do.”