Okay, so it wasn’t exactly the best way to start a friendship.
Two Southeastern Conference football players, one an Auburn strong safety, the other an Ole Miss running back.
They never met, they didn’t even know anything about each other until they violently collided in a mass of arms, legs, sweat and stink early in last year’s game between the teams in Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium.
And now, they call each other twice a month.
“It is kind of weird,” Auburn strong safety Zac Etheridge says, “but personally I had a need to stay in touch with the guy who basically saved my life.”
Etheridge, a senior from Troy, Ala., is enjoying the finest season of his career on a team that is ranked No. 1 in the BCS heading into Saturday’s game against the Rebels. He has 45 tackles and two interceptions, and a TD fumble recovery for the 8-0 Tigers.
But he’ll tell you without hesitation this year may not have happened, that even a normal functioning life as he knows it would not be possible, without the quick thinking last Oct. 31 of Ole Miss running back Rodney Scott.
In a horrific helmet-to-helmet collision with teammate Eltoro Freeman while trying to tackle Scott, Etheridge was knocked unconscious and temporarily paralyzed. The final diagnosis of his season-ending injury was torn neck ligaments and a cracked fifth vertebra.
That’s season-ending injury. Not career-ending. Or life threatening. And that was because of Scott, whose effectiveness as a runner usually is based on quick moves.
But in this case, he’s never made a more important play by not moving at all.
The play, with 2:42 left in the first quarter of last season’s Rebels-Tigers Western Division hullabaloo, seemed like hundreds of others Scott has run in his career, whether in junior high, high school and college.
Second down-and-two yards at the Ole Miss 48. Here’s the handoff. There’s the hole. Hit before it closes.
It slammed shut in a blink. Scott gained but a yard when Etheridge and Coleman cracked into each other trying to deliver punishing blows.
Coleman wasn’t fazed, and normally, Scott would have popped right up after being tackled. That’s what running backs do, even if they are hurt. Never show an opponent you’re weak. Grit your teeth. Exhale. Next play.
But this time, Scott, flat on his back, had Etheridge stretched across him. And because Scott could feel no movement from Etheridge, like he was dead weight, a little voice told him “Don’t move.”
“There was just something in my mind telling me he could be seriously injured,” Scott recalls. “When he made no effort to get up, I just stayed as still as I could.
“The trainers came out and asked me if I was hurt. I said, `No.’ They asked Zac if he was hurt and he wasn’t saying anything. The trainers told me not to move, but I already knew that. I just looked up at the sky.”
What Scott couldn’t see was the fear on Etheridge’s face (once he regained consciousness), because Etheridge had lost all feeling. He couldn’t move. All he could do was whisper a barely-audible prayer as the crowd of 84,756 went silent and players on both teams went to bended knees to pray.
“I was in shock, so all I could say was `Jesus, Jesus’,” Etheridge remembers. “I just kept calling His name over and over.”
For 10 minutes, Scott didn’t move a muscle, didn’t even twitch, while trainers, doctors and emergency personnel gingerly strapped Etheridge to a backboard.
“He (Scott) could have pushed me off him, and it would have moved a vertebra,” Etheridge says. “But he didn’t.”
Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt still describes it as an “unbelievable scene.” When he first saw Scott flat on the ground and not moving underneath Etheridge, he asked Rebels’ running back Coach Derrick Nix what was going on.
“I didn’t think Rodney got hurt,” Nutt says. “But then you quickly find out from the doctors and trainers that the Auburn kid was seriously hurt.”
By the time Etheridge was tediously removed from the field, he began to get feeling back and gave a thumbs-up. Once at a hospital, X-rays revealed the extent of his injury that put him in an invasive neck brace for three months. But the fact he was able to walk by the time he got to the hospital was nothing short of a miracle.
“That was amazing,” Etheridge says. “I called on Jesus and He answered my prayers and the prayers of 84,000 and everyone else who was watching.”
After the game, trainers and doctors told Scott what he had done was heroic, that had he moved, Etheridge may have been permanently paralyzed. Auburn Coach Gene Chizik said at the time, “He (Scott) sat as still as the night right underneath him (Etheridge). It was one of the most phenomenal things I've witnessed."
A couple of days after the dramatic scene played out, Scott got a call from Etheridge and Etheridge’s mother. Only then, perhaps, did he realize the impact of action to take inaction.
“His momma thanked me for their whole family,” Scott says.
And while it was nice that last June the SEC named Scott its co-winner of the league’s third annual sportsmanship award, and that he and Etheridge have since been nominated for this year’s Orange Bowl/Football Writers Association of America award – “I didn’t know it would get really big like this,” says a surprised Scott – the residual effect of the potential tragedy is a lifelong friendship.
Scott, a sophomore from Cross City, Fla. and Etheridge chat on the phone “just to see how each other are doing, how the season is going,” Etheridge says.
The time or two that Scott has caught a glimpse of an Auburn TV game this season, it made him feel good to see Etheridge making plays again with abandon.
“I know he loves playing college football as much as any other player out there,” Scott says. “I’m happy to see him at 100 percent and back on the field.”
Etheridge, who is playing this season as a graduate student having earned his Bachelors in public administration last December, scored his first college touchdown just a couple of weeks ago. He scooped an Arkansas fumble and scored on a 47-yard return late in the game to seal a Tigers’ victory in that wild 65-43 affair in Jordan-Hare.
“It means a whole lot to me just to be a part of this team, to go out each week and play for each other,” Etheridge says. “The tough part was convincing the coaches and trainers that I was okay to play. No one wanted to be responsible if something happened again to me, but once I made some big hits in preseason scrimmages and practices when I put my face in there (on ball carriers), they all believed me.”
Etheridge also believes that no matter how his last college season plays out, his brush with tragedy changed him for the better.
“I’m not taking life for granted, I’m embracing every moment,” Etheridge says. “I’m trying to live right everyday. I realized that God has a purpose for everyone’s life, and he’s using me to share my story with other people.”
Chizik understands he’s watching a mini-miracle each time Etheridge makes a fearless, full-blast hit.
“A year ago was a very hard time for everybody, for him, for his family, for our team,” Chizik says. “I'm in amazement when I really step back and think about that day and the fact that he's sitting here playing in this (week’s) game. It's just going to be somewhat of an emotional deal for him.”
That’s because finally on Saturday, after countless phone conversations, Etheridge gets to finally thank Scott face-to-face.
It might happen before the game when the teams walk the field in street clothes. But no doubt it will take place afterwards, because Etheridge’s mother Cassandra Kelly has demanded it.
“She’s already called me trying to figure it out how we’ll set it up to meet Rodney,” Etheridge says.
Like her son, a sure tackler, it’s a good bet that Cassandra will demonstrate the proper tackling technique when she meets Scott.
She’ll wrap him up tight, like all great defenders do. And then, it’s a good bet she’ll give him a big, long hug, squeeze the air out of him and with moist eyes gratefully deliver a kiss of gratitude on his cheek.