Wildcats' Wootton finds inspiration after injury

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Corey Wootton's pity party lasted all of five minutes on the Alamodome carpet.

The Northwestern star defensive end had mangled his right knee late in the fourth quarter of the Alamo Bowl against Missouri. His instant self-diagnosis -- a torn ACL -- would turn out to be spot on, and Wootton went to the sideline in obvious physical and emotional pain.

Questions raced through his mind: How serious is it? How long will I be out? What about the NFL?

That's when the wheelchair rolled up to him.

"Corey, how you doing?" Chris Skinner asked him.

Wootton groaned.

"Could be here, Corey," Skinner replied, referring to the wheelchair.

Wootton smiled.

"I haven't seen him frown since," said Northwestern defensive line coach Marty Long, recalling the sideline scene.

Skinner served as a constant source of inspiration for Wootton and his teammates, even in their toughest moments. A former athlete who became a quadriplegic following a horrific car accident in 2000, Skinner first came to Northwestern in the preseason as a motivational speaker.

Head coach Pat Fitzgerald typically brings in speakers during preseason camp, but he had Skinner come just days before the 2008 opener. Skinner's story left a powerful impression on the players, and he remained in close contact with the team, attending several games, including the Alamo Bowl.

"It really motivated me to play to the fullest of my potential," Wootton said. "I never really thought about the way I played until he came. He said, 'Give everything you've got every snap, because you never know when it's going to be taken away from you.' That's what I try to live by.'"

Wootton underwent ACL surgery Jan. 16. He's sitting out spring practice but plans to start jogging in a few weeks, targeting a return for the start of camp in August.

Long bristled a bit when asked about Wootton coming back from a major injury, saying, "Major injuries keep you from even walking. An ACL is just happenstance right now."

Wootton learned that lesson the night of Dec. 29.

"I was kind of down about it, and he just told me just to push on," Wootton said. "I thought it definitely could be worse."