Noah Syverson, Campus Carrier reporter
For a wide receiver, the ability to run crisp routes and create separation is critical to success. The best wide receivers can change direction on a dime, contorting their bodies to defy forward momentum and propel themselves towards a desired spot on the field, all while the tension of violent collisions heightens the stakes of every movement.
This past year, that same need to change direction quickly and absorb big hits contributed to two Berry wide receivers suffering painful knee injuries that sidelined them for a majority of the 2019 season.
Each of their unique roads to recovery was long and hard, filled with tough rehabilitation sessions and even tougher mental battles.
Yet, as both T.J. Watkins and Michael Luckie told it, the process of working their way back from ACL tears, suffered just over a month apart from each other, provided the opportunity to come back stronger, more motivated and more appreciative of just what they had lost when they were injured.
In early September of last year, with the home-opener against LaGrange College approaching, Watkins felt good about where he was at both physically and mentally.
The Berry wide receiver corps, like many of the position groups on the 16th-ranked Vikings, was deep and talented. Mason Kinsey, a future NFL-signee, headlined the group, with Watkins, Luckie and Cade Kennemore making up the rest of the starters.
However, just three days before the first game at Valhalla, Watkins felt a pop in his left leg while running a route during practice.
“I didn’t think it was serious because I was running on it pretty good until my knee gave out on me later into practice,” Watkins said. “With that, in the span of three days, I went from preparing for a home game to being told my season was over.”
A trip to the doctor confirmed that his injury was a torn ACL.
For the rest of the season, Watkins continued to work at being the best teammate he could be, encouraging from the sidelines and staying positive. He admits that the biggest challenge of rehab was not what he was working his leg through, but rather, what was going on in his mind.
“What I learned about the rehab process is that it’s more mental than physical,” Watkins said. “I often challenged myself on a daily or weekly basis so I could see the improvement for myself. With significant progress and encouragement, I saw improvement in both my mental and physical state.”
Having to watch from the sidelines on crutches also taught Watkins something about himself that he had not been able to fully appreciate before.
“One thing I’ve learned about myself is how much I truly love the game,” Watkins said. “People will always see the touchdowns or big plays but what they don’t see are the spring practices, the summer workouts or the Thursday morning lifts with classes right after. I found myself missing every second of it. An unforeseen challenge for me is to love and cherish every minute I have playing the game I love with people who love it just as much as me. I took it for granted so many times but you never know what you have until you lose it.”
Berry’s wide receiver coach, Daniel Hill, said he was really impressed with the way Watkins battled back from adversity
“TJ showed great perseverance after his injury—he had never had a season ending injury in his entire career,” Hill said. “A lot of players would have struggled with that, but I think TJ handled it well and has been doing all he can to come back.”
Luckie is no stranger to football-related injuries.
After his freshman season at Berry, the now-junior was dealing with leg pain that led to the discovery of two herniated discs in his back that necessitated surgery. A three-month recovery slog brought him back just in time for camp, but five practices in, Luckie dislocated a finger.
Luckie pushed through the pain and decided to start playing again just two games into the 2019 season, even though the initial recovery time was estimated at six to eight weeks. After seeing time in three games, Luckie was starting to get the hang of having to catch passes while sporting a cast.
Then, in a home game against Hendrix, Luckie suffered another injury, perhaps the scariest of them all.
“I caught a pass towards the sideline and went to make a cut but instead I dislocated my knee, fully tearing my ACL, MCL, meniscus, fracturing my femur and partially tearing my PCL,” Luckie said. “The rehab process started out very slow because I was on crutches for three months but I did everything they told me to do. It took about six months for my knee to start feeling normal again.”
The devastating injury forced Luckie back into the rehab room, where he, just as Watkins did, found that the mental side of recovery was nearly as formidable as the physical aspect.
“The biggest challenge that came with my knee injury was learning to be patient,” Luckie said. “There have been times where it seemed like I wasn’t progressing at all and then times where I was flying past PT [physical therapy] workouts. Learning to take it one day at a time has helped me keep a level head through it all.”
Hill says Luckie is a great example of a guy who embraces toughness and a love of the game of football.
“Michael is a very selfless person, and he is a great teammate,” Hill said. “Our staff calls him a ‘glue’ guy because of his unique ability to create strong friendships and accountability on our team. He is definitely someone that I tell our young players to look up to.”
Turning a Negative into a Positive
In both Watkins’ and Luckie’s case, grit and determination were key to the two talented wideouts working their way back to the field. That same determination was again called into action this year, when it was announced that the 2020 Berry football season was being put on hold indefinitely.
The two wide receivers, who had to miss most of last year’s conference championship run while working their way back from injury, were told they would have to wait even longer before they could return to the field.
Whenever the return does happen, and the Vikings get back to competition at Valhalla, there is little doubt that the perspective both Luckie and Watkins now have will inform and enrich their enjoyment of the game.
“I intend to cherish and enjoy every moment because we aren’t guaranteed anything beyond that point,” Watkins said. “I intend to give my heart and soul this next season to prove to myself that I can be better than I aspire to be.”