N.C. State's Nate Irving admits that he isn't quite the same player who headed into the summer of 2009 as one of the ACC's top linebackers.
He isn't quite as fast.
He isn't quite as strong.
But he's quite a bit more grateful.
Irving believes he can take care of the first two issues by the start of the season. He's not about to change the third.
Almost exactly one year after he was involved in a car wreck that could have killed him, Irving relishes the chance to get back onto the field.
"It just makes you appreciate all the small things," said Irving, a senior who turns 22 on July 12. "Practice and workouts, I didn't think I'd look forward to those types of things. But after having to sit out a year and not be able to participate, it made me appreciate more things everyone else would complain about since they had been taken away from me."
Irving missed the 2009 season after suffering a collapsed lung and a compound fracture in his left leg in a one-car accident June 28. A year earlier, he had averaged 8.7 tackles per game and had picked off four passes -- the highest total ever by a North Carolina State linebacker -- to lead the Wolfpack on a late-season surge that resulted in a Papajohns.com Bowl bid.
He expects to be back in the lineup for the Wolfpack's season opener against Western Carolina on Sept. 4. Irving returned to the field for the first time since his accident during spring practice.
"I can't even put into words how it felt," Irving said. "All I can say is it felt good, but that's an understatement. It felt great to be back out there with my teammates."
A year ago, the prospect of Irving rejoining his teammates seemed questionable. Irving was visiting his family's home in Wallace, N.C., last June when he decided to make a late-night return to campus, about 90 miles away. He recalls getting on Interstate 40 and passing an 18-wheeler, but his memory of that night gets hazy from there.
Authorities indicated Irving's SUV hit two trees at about 4:40 a.m. after he apparently fell asleep at the wheel in western Johnston County, about 30 miles from Raleigh. A careless driving charge against Irving was dismissed.
"I just remember waking up in the hospital with tubes in my chest," Irving said. "I was afraid. I didn't know what happened to me. I just could feel the tubes coming out of my body. … I was afraid that not only would I not be able to play again, but more so whether I'd be able to walk again."
Irving considered himself fortunate that the injury merely ended his season. But that didn't make it any easier to watch as North Carolina State failed to live up to expectations. After being touted as a dark-horse ACC contender, the Wolfpack stumbled to a 5-7 finish and ranked 99th nationally in scoring defense.
"That was probably the hardest part of my rehab, just having to sit there and watch as my teammates went through the season they went through, not being able to help them," Irving said.
The rest of his rehab wasn't much easier. After being discharged from the hospital, Irving went home for several weeks to allow his injured bones to heal. At that point, Irving had to be extra cautious when he took a shower or walked across his room, just to make sure he didn't cause additional damage to his leg. When he returned to campus in August, he couldn't stress the leg with any type of high-impact activities.
He began a jogging program in a therapy pool in October because the water put less stress on his leg. He wore flotation devices to make sure he wouldn't have any impact with the bottom of the pool. Phil Hedrick, North Carolina State's head athletic trainer for football, considered it the equivalent of treading water in a 10-foot swimming pool.
It has happened before
As N.C. State linebacker Nate Irving attempts to return from a life-threatening car wreck that sidelined him for the 2009 season, he can take comfort in knowing that other athletes have made similar comebacks. Here's a look at some athletes who returned to compete after getting involved in serious car or motorcycle wrecks.
Ben Hogan, Golf, 1949
Hogan broke his collarbone, pelvis, ankle and rib when his car was in a head-on collision with a Greyhound bus in Van Horn, Texas. He suffered a blood clot while recovering from the injury. He was sidelined for 11 months but came back to win the U.S. Open the following year.
Bobby Hurley, Basketball, 1993
Hurley was returning from a game in his rookie year with the Sacramento Kings when he was thrown from his truck after colliding with a station wagon. He suffered a torn windpipe stem, two collapsed lungs, five broken ribs, a fractured shoulder blade, a torn ACL in his right knee, a fracture in his lower back and a broken right fibula. He returned to action the following season and played a total of five more seasons in the NBA.
Ben Roethlisberger, Football, 2006
Roethlisberger broke his jaw and bones in his face and suffered a mild concussion when he wrecked his motorcycle and cracked his head on a car windshield. He recovered from the June accident quickly enough to quarterback the Pittsburgh Steelers' first exhibition game.
Erik Williams, Football, 1994
The Dallas Cowboys offensive lineman tore ligaments in his right knee, broke a rib, tore ligaments in his left thumb and suffered facial cuts that required plastic surgery when his Mercedes hit a guardrail north of Dallas. The injury caused him to miss the 1994 season, but he returned the following year and would continue to play through 2001.
Kellen Winslow Jr., Football, 2005
Winslow was riding a motorcycle in a parking lot in Westlake, Ohio, when he hit a curb and was thrown from his bike. He suffered a torn ACL in his right knee that prevented him from playing in the 2005 season, but the tight end came back and caught at least 82 passes for the Cleveland Browns in each of the next two seasons.
By early February, Irving began doing some straight-line jogging exercises. When he could perform those exercises without limping, Irving graduated to some change-of-direction drills. He finally was sprinting again by late February.
"He never questioned anything we asked him to do," Hedrick said. "He worked hard at it. Initially when the accident happened, he went into a little bit of a shell, but through the course of time with his body healing and seeing that everything was going to be OK, he got around to his normal jovial self. I'd like to think that's the way he is today."
While Irving was able to participate in spring practice, he still has plenty of work ahead of him. He must improve his speed to get back to the point where he was during that 2008 season. He also must build up his body. After weighing up to 249 pounds two seasons ago, Irving currently is at about 235.
"I still feel like I've got a long way to go to get where I want to be," Irving said, "first and foremost, with my strength and speed and just my body being used to the demand and impact [football] has."
The good news is that Irving didn't have any problem with his leg during spring practice. He now is participating in offseason conditioning and expects to be in peak form by the start of the season.
North Carolina State desperately needs Irving at full strength to lead a defense with plenty of question marks. The defensive line will have four new starters, and while the secondary returns two starters, N.C. State ranked 106th nationally in pass efficiency defense last season.
"I try to imagine what it will be like running out of the tunnel and making that first tackle in that first game," Irving said. "I try to imagine what it will be like over and over, but I can't grasp the emotions I'll be going through, what I'll be feeling and thinking."
NFL scouts are eager to see how Irving responds. The website nfldraftscout.com currently forecasts Irving to go undrafted, but that should change if Irving regains his 2008 form. Irving was rated as a potential middle-round selection before his wreck.
"Based on how he played as a freshman and sophomore, I wouldn't have gone as far as saying he was a first-round pick, but he absolutely showed enough instincts and physicality and [skills as a] reliable open-field tackler that the NFL certainly would be watching him," said Rob Rang, a senior draft analyst for nfldraftscout.com. "He remains a player NFL scouts are absolutely watching."
Irving realizes what's at stake. He also has a keen understanding that the future isn't promised to anyone. Irving keeps a photo of his mangled SUV on his cell phone and in his room.
"It puts everything in perspective," Irving said. "You can be on top one minute, and then anything can be taken away the next.
"You have to take advantage of every opportunity you have and take nothing for granted."