Sep 5, 2013
Zac Etheridge returns an interception in Auburn's victory over LSU in 2010 (Todd Van Emst photo)
By Taylor Shirey
AUBURN, Ala. - Former safety Zac Etheridge, who came back from a near catastrophic neck injury to help Auburn win the 2010 national championship, will receive the second James Owens Courage Award during pregame ceremonies Saturday's game between Auburn and Arkansas State.
Owens, Auburn's first scholarship African-American football player, won the first award in his name last season.
"The adversity I faced and overcame was just a blessing, and it touched a lot of people," Etheridge said. "I'm ecstatic and honored to be a recipient of this award."
Etheridge's story of courage began on Oct. 31, 2009.
It was just another Saturday afternoon in Jordan-Hare Stadium. More than 84,000 fans filled the stands to cheer on the Tigers against Ole Miss, but none of them could have predicted a first-quarter injury that almost ended Etheridge's career and even put his life at risk.
It was a routine tackle, a tackle that Etheridge had made hundreds of times in practices and games throughout his career. But this one went terribly wrong. Etheridge collided helmet-to-helmet collision with teammate Antonio Coleman at the end of the play. Etheridge lay motionless on the field.
"I made my effort to get up, but I noticed that Zac was making no effort to get up," Scott said after the game. "The first thing in my mind was that he could be seriously injured, so I just waited for help to come out."
Etheridge knew something wasn't right.
"I knew right away it was my neck," Etheridge said. "My first thought was a quick prayer in my head, and I called on God."
After several minutes, Etheridge was strapped to a backboard and was carried off the field. He flashed a thumbs-up and was greeted with a thundering cheer from the crowd. He was taken to an area hospital for evaluation, but returning to the field was never far from Etheridge's mind.
"Once I got to the hospital and did all my tests, my first thought was would I be able to play the game again," Etheridge said. "Would I be able to play football?"
Etheridge had torn ligaments in his neck and cracked vertebrae in his neck. The thought of him returning to the field for his senior season seemed out of the question. Doctors couldn't give Etheridge a timetable of if or when he would be able to return to football. They told him there was a slim chance he could play again.
"Once he gave me that slight chance, like 10 percent, I just put my faith in God and really just grinded and did everything I could to make sure I had another opportunity to play again," Etheridge said. "I wasn't just rehabbing for football. I was rehabbing for my health."
Etheridge, a Troy native, faced a difficult road. He wore a neck harness for months and went through an extensive rehab process to be able to return to the field for his senior season. He credits his mother as being an inspiration and a source of courage.
"My mom is a hard-working, dedicated woman," Etheridge said. "How she handled this adversity through prayer and just supporting the family instilled in me and caused me to drive so much."
In July of 2010, Etheridge was medically cleared to return to football activities.
"Zac displayed outstanding courage and perseverance to get through the rehab, because the odds were greatly stacked against him," said Mike Goodlett, Auburn's team doctor. "He rehabbed as hard as he could every day and never lost faith that he would get back on the football field,"
When Auburn opened what would be a national championship run in 2010 with a 52-26 victory over Arkansas State, Etheridge was on the field.
"I couldn't have done it alone without the support of the Auburn Family and my family and friends," Etheridge said. "Standing back on the field was a relief that I got a chance to do what I love to do and that's to play the game, run around and hit people."
Etheridge shares his story of defeating the odds to help motivate his own players as a graduate assistant coach at Georgia Tech.
"Looking back," Etheridge said, "I never thought the impact of my injury would affect other people. ... I'm just blessed to be able to walk and share my story."