Ross Cockrell starred in football and track at Charlotte Latin, and in football at Duke. He is the rare player with the opportunity to play for the team with which he grew up.
The Carolina Panthers signed him March 23. Four months and seven days later, his season ended. Cockrell broke his left tibia and fibula on a fluke play at training camp. So many NFL injuries are flukes. Cockrell is a cornerback, and his left foot was caught beneath the body of receiver Torrey Smith, who had dived to make a catch.
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Stand on the side of a football field, at camp or during a game, and you wonder how players keep getting up. They hammer each other, the offense going against the defense, the defense against the offense.
A week into training camp and the offense and defense already don’t like each other. It’s bruising out there. How do you avoid injury? You limit hitting. You tell blockers and defenders not to lead with their helmets. You remind players that they play for the same team. And they get hurt anyway.
I was almost next to Carolina receiver Kelvin Benjamin when he tore his ACL during training camp in 2015. The Panthers were scrimmaging the Miami Dolphins, but nobody from Miami touched him. He planted his foot, went down and missed the season. He plays for Buffalo now.
Cockrell was the second Panther to leave the field on a cart. Tackle Daryl Williams, who in his right knee dislocated the patella and tore his MCL, was the first. The scorecard: Five days of camp, two major injuries.
Some players simply are unlucky. Carolina middle linebacker Dan Morgan was talented and, man, did he work. Yet he suffered so many injuries that it was as if he collected them. And it wasn’t one body part that was damaged, failed to heal and continually gave out. Almost every injury differed. If he didn’t have bad luck…
Morgan is director of player personnel for the Buffalo Bills. Charlotte has a deal with Buffalo. Buffalo residents take Interstate 79 south to move here. Panthers and former Panthers take American Airlines or United Airlines north to play or work there.
Cockrell’s injury is tough to watch, whether you were there or read an account or saw a video from somebody that was.
Cockrell’s injury is especially sad because the Panthers were his team. He was going to play and perhaps start for the team with which he grew up. Don’t we all plan to play for the local football, basketball or baseball team?
Buffalo took Cockrell in the fourth round of the 2014 draft (the Panthers took North Carolina safety Tre Boston in the fourth round). Cockrell played for Buffalo, the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants before working his way back to Charlotte.
“It’s very cool,” Cockrell told the Observer about coming home. “Familiar team, familiar city, great organization and Super Bowl aspirations, too – that’s always a plus.”
Cockrell’s injury was painful – for anybody who dreamed the dream he was about to live.