Auburn safety Zac Etheridge will miss the rest of the season after suffering a neck injury against Ole Miss and his future in football is uncertain, head coach Gene Chizik said Sunday.
Etheridge injured his neck while trying to make a tackle in the first quarter of Saturday’s 33-20 victory against the Rebels. He was immobilized and taken to East Alabama Medical Center before being transported to a Birmingham-area hospital Saturday night.
“In talking to the medical people, I think everybody’s hopeful for a full recovery,” Chizik said.
Chizik did not want to speculate about Etheridge’s future as a football player.
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“I don’t know where that goes,” he said. “We’re talking about full recovery as a person.”
An announcement was made in the press box during the game that Etheridge had movement in his extremities, but Chizik did not feel comfortable giving further details of his status Sunday. A picture on Etheridge’s Facebook page shows him smiling and wearing a neck brace in a hospital bed.
Chizik said Auburn’s staff and players are arranging a trip to see him.
“He’s a team leader and he’s loved by all the guys on this football team and that’s because he loves football and he loves Auburn,” Chizik said.
“Everybody on our team knows it. Without question, he’s one of the leaders of our football team. It’s going to be tough.”
Etheridge, a junior, made his 24th career start Saturday, the 33rd of his career. He led the team in tackles last season and was fourth this year with 52.
“That guy was a guy that was playing at a much higher level and had improved during the season,” defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “He was doing a good job of leading us through some tough times and being a very positive leader through some tough times. He’s almost like a coach on the field. That’s hard to replace, with as many ballgames, as many huddles as he’s broke.
“At the same time, you just pray and hope — there are a lot of things in his life right now that are more important than football.”
The injury happened with 2:42 left in the first quarter. The crown of Etheridge’s helmet collided with defensive end Antonio Coleman’s shoulder, leaving him motionless on the ground.
Remarkably, Ole Miss running back Rodney Scott was pinned underneath Etheridge following the play and stayed perfectly still while trainers raced onto the field to tend to the injured safety.
“It was one of the most amazing things I’ve seen,” Chizik said.
“I’ve got to give that young man a lot of credit. I don’t know how he knew, but he just knew he couldn’t move and he sat as still as the night laying right underneath him. It was one of the most phenomenal things I’ve witnessed in doing this.”
It cast a pall over the Jordan-Hare Stadium. Teammates and coaches briefly huddled around Etheridge before he was carted off the field, giving him words of encouragement.
Wide receiver Travante Stallworth said football players are aware of the possibility of getting seriously injured, although they keep it in the back of their minds.
“You think about it, but you try not to,” he said. “You don’t want to think about that. Just play the next play. You can’t think about what’ll happen next or if it’ll happen to you because then you’ll get yourself hurt.”
Roof said he’s never coached a game when one of his players was injured this seriously.
“That’s the first,” he said, “and I hope it’s the last.”