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Two knee injuries later, John Ross is back for Washington

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SEATTLE -- The John Ross who made the Stanford secondary look as if it were running through maple syrup last week has come a long way in the past two years.

The Washington wide receiver has added 17 pounds to his 5-foot-11 frame, which means at 190 pounds he is no longer as vulnerable to a strong wind or a strong safety.

This past March, Ross ran a hand-timed 4.25 40-yard dash. While some NFL scouts turn up their nose at the inaccuracies of hand times, how far off could it be? Maybe it was "only" a 4.35. Ask the Cardinal defensive backs who couldn't get near Ross -- except when they committed pass interference against him twice -- how fast he is.

Oh, yeah. There was one other small thing. Nothing, really. Just that Ross is sprinting through secondaries and kickoff coverages after recovering from major injuries to both knees. The repaired fourth-year junior has become one of the big reasons the Huskies have risen to No. 5 in the AP poll.

"I would never, ever see myself in the position I'm in now," Ross said. "I'm honestly happy that I got hurt. It just changed me physically, mentally, emotionally, in football, in every aspect. I got to learn so much just by watching. It was almost like a redshirt year. It was a redshirt year, but just so late in my career."

Ross didn't always see the injuries as a gift. He suffered his first injury against Illinois in the third game of the 2014 season, tearing his meniscus in his right knee. He also needed microfracture surgery after the season. Yet Ross never let on that he was hurt.

Hey, NFL, you can check the toughness box.

"It was a kickoff return," Ross said. "Just got rolled up on pretty good. And I felt something in my knee, but I didn't think nothing of it. My knee swelled up after the game. And it never really went down. But I was worried if I said something, I probably would have to sit out for the rest of the season."

Ross had caught a touchdown in each of the Huskies' first three games. He missed the following week, and then played five straight weeks before the knee caught up to him. He caught only 11 passes combined in those games, and now says he wasn't anymore than 75 percent of his best self.

"There were days when my leg was so stiff I couldn't run," Ross said, "night games where it was harder for me to get warmer because I had that swelling in my knee. The swelling did not go down at all. There was no chance of the swelling going down. The doctor ended up telling me after I got the MRI after the season, I waited so long, [the knee] started to heal itself. I don't know if that was good or bad."

The following spring, on the first day the medical staff cleared Ross to practice in full pads, he still didn't completely trust his knee.

"I was running a simple go route, and a lot of people were in the way," Ross said. "My first instinct, instead of running someone over, was jump out the way. So I was kind of favoring my meniscus [right] knee, jumped out the way to my right. Didn't want to land on my right. Landed in an awkward position on my left and I felt my knee snap. That's when I tore the ACL and meniscus on my left knee.

"It was kind of a weird deal," Ross said. "After I got off the ground, I could still run. I was walking without a limp. Going to class. I got my MRI, and I went home and went to sleep. I woke up, and my leg was stuck in a bent position. I kind of figured something was really, really wrong at that point."

Ross said he could have played late in the 2015 season. But he and the coaches agreed it would be smarter to fully heal, and to complete the redshirt year and have that season in the bank. He participated in bowl practices, where he learned just how far behind he had fallen. In the first conditioning drill he took part in, the team ran six sprints, with minimal rest between.

On the first two, he ran out front of everyone.

On the next two, he stayed out in front of everyone.

By the sixth and final one, he had to be helped off the field.

"I kind of wanted to show everyone I could still run," Ross said. "The first couple of reps, I was just killing 'em. Our last two reps, I almost passed out. ... I just felt my whole body cramping up. I felt it completely slowing down. There was nothing I could do about it."

Being cleared to practice, and being able to practice, and proving that you are 100 percent back and better than ever in practice, all are important. But they are a long way from putting on the Husky uniform and standing on the goal line awaiting a kickoff. Ross started a countdown on his phone. Imagine looking at it and seeing you have 100 days to go.

"It was the longest summer of my life," Ross said.

When the countdown reached zero, and Sept. 3 had arrived, Ross didn't have to wait long. On the Huskies' second snap, Jake Browning threw him a quick pass for 2 yards. Before the first quarter ended, Ross had caught touchdown passes from Browning of 38 and 50 yards. But those catches weren't the things that had infiltrated his sleep.

Washington didn't have to return a kickoff until late in the second quarter. The Huskies scored the first 24 points of the game before Rutgers kicked a field goal. Ross went back to the goal line. He caught the kick at the Washington 8, and he ran as if he hadn't run back a kick in two years. Touchdown, Huskies.

"I actually dreamed about something like that," Ross said. "I would talk to the guys about it. I dreamed that the first kickoff return I touched would go to the house. And for it to happen, it was mind-boggling. It wasn't exactly like I pictured it, but it happened."

All the doubt, all the swelling, all the pain, all the waiting. All gone. Nearly two years had taken an eternity to pass. When Ross reached the end zone, time stopped again. It was a completely different feeling.

"It felt unreal," Ross said. "I might have been standing there for a long time. My teammates did come and grab me. It was so unreal to me."

Ross finished the opener with five catches for 90 yards. He leads the Huskies in touchdowns (eight), receptions (21), kickoff returns (five, 35-yard average) and all-purpose yards (96.2 ypg). John Ross is back, and so are the Huskies. That's not exactly a coincidence.