His neck locked into place by a cumbersome brace, safety Zac Etheridge walked into the Auburn athletic complex Tuesday, just three days after a serious injury left him briefly paralyzed on the Jordan-Hare Stadium field.
After an emotional reunion with teammates, he sat in front of a media throng, gracious and eager to respond to the myriad text messages, e-mails and prayers he had received from fans and well-wishers the previous 72 hours.
“I want the world to know that I’m fine,” Etheridge said.
Etheridge tore ligaments in his neck and cracked his fifth vertebra trying to make a tackle against Ole Miss on Saturday. He hasn’t had surgery but will have to wear the neck harness 24 hours a day for three to four months.
Auburn’s medical staff is optimistic Etheridge will make a full recovery, although his football-playing future remains uncertain. The junior hopes to play again.
“That was probably the first question I asked,” he said. “They said, ‘Don’t worry about anything. You’ll be fine.’ I was like, ‘Will I be able to play again?’ At first, the doctors told me that they don’t know. After we got some pretty good results from the MRI and the X-rays and the CAT scan, things look like I’ll be able to play again.”
Etheridge was injured while trying to make a tackle in the first quarter Saturday against Ole Miss. The top of his helmet collided with teammate Antonio Coleman’s shoulder.
“My body just collapsed,” Etheridge said. “I didn’t have control of it. All I know is that I was lying on the ground and not able to move. I felt my neck. I didn’t think it was serious. I was trying to get up but I couldn’t.”
The injury left Auburn’s players and coaches shaken.
“I always look at a guy down on the field and say, ‘How would I feel if that was my son?’ ” Tigers coach Gene Chizik said. “That’s how I gauge it all. If you are a mom in the stands and you see that, how would you feel as a parent? I feel the same way. You go out there and you assess the situation and it just rips you up. There’s nothing good about it. That’s somebody’s son out there on that field. That’s a tough thing to see.”
Etheridge praised the quick thinking of Rebels running back Rodney Scott, who didn’t move while pinned underneath the motionless safety on the field. Etheridge spoke with Houston Nutt on Tuesday and attempted to get in touch with Scott to thank him.
“If he would have moved, I wouldn’t be here today,” Etheridge said. “I’d still be laying on the hospital bed. It’s just a blessing that I’m even able to walk again today.”
Trainers immediately raced to the field to tend to Etheridge, who was briefly unable to move before regaining feeling in his toes. He was immobilized and carted off the field, but had enough movement in his hands to give a thumbs-up to the crowd.
He was taken to the East Alabama Medical Center before being transported via ambulance to a Birmingham-area hospital that night. Although the hospital staff wanted him to stay in bed, Etheridge insisted on getting up and attempting to walk around the room, which he did.
He doesn’t know if he’ll attend Auburn’s game against Furman on Saturday.
“They want me on bed rest, just relaxing,” he said. “I will definitely be at the Iron Bowl.”
For now, he’s still processing how radically his life changed in the last three days.
“It scared me a lot,” Etheridge said. “You never know when your last play will be. You never know what’s going to happen in life. ... I’ll be fine. I told all the guys — I’ll be fine even if I’m not able to play football again. I will still be around Auburn. I will still be an Auburn man.”