Woolfolk gets degree in perseverance

Before the broken hand, the bloodied nose and the sprained ankle rang in the 2011 season for Troy Woolfolk. Before he said he was "stronger than ever" in his fifth and final year at Michigan. Before he began to fight the little injuries this year, he had to fight the biggest injury from last year -- and that began with four very simple words.

Daddy, my season's over.

The words slowly trickled over the telephone line. And for a brief moment, there was a pause on Butch Woolfolk's end.

But then, "Shut up!" were the words that came out of his mouth. He knew his son was, at the heart of it all, a jokester, just like himself. And on that day he didn't have time for it, especially not while he was at work, and certainly not while Troy should be focusing on the Michigan football preseason.

No. I'm serious Daddy. It's over.

Again he heard, but Butch didn't believe. Troy, the son who two days prior had told him how he was in the best shape of his life, how he was so ready for the 2010 season, how he would dominate the secondary that year -- no, he couldn't possibly be serious.


Daddy. Another pause, a pause just long enough that it only meant one thing -- it was true.

My season is over.

Troy's solemn words had finally sunk in for Butch. His son, his "Mini Me," as his wife, Regina, describes Troy, would be spending his senior season on crutches, struggling to walk, while someone else took his starting position in the Big House.

Images flashed through his head and Butch knew Troy's senior year would be one spent watching and learning how to run again. Butch knew the routine all too well. He had lived it during his seven-year NFL career. He knew exactly what his son was experiencing, and it took his breath away.

He rushed home from work knowing Regina wouldn't be able to take a phone call like that.

After all, she'd been there during Butch's three season-ending injuries in the NFL -- twice when he was able to recover, and once when he could not -- and she'd seen her fair share of comeback stories. But Troy was never the protagonist of those tales.

Troy's pain tolerance was off the charts. He had avoided injury in his first three seasons despite his established, intense nature on the field. How could he be the one lying there, immobile? He was the boy who had splinted his own broken fingers with Popsicle sticks and Band-Aids in elementary school after he fell off his bike.

As Butch winded his way down Route 59, he wondered what he would say to Regina. He rehearsed in his head the various ways that he could explain. But in the end, he made it simple.

Troy's season is over.

Regina didn't need to be told more than once. The next day she was on the first nonstop flight from Houston to Detroit.

A part of the game

A thousand questions raced through Regina's mind before she even got to Troy's side. She wondered whether the injury was career-ending. She wondered how long the recovery would take. She wondered how Troy would get along in Ann Arbor when the team went on its first road trip without him, but, she knew from experience that the biggest battle Troy would face through all of this was the mental recovery.

"It's one thing for someone to tell you what to anticipate and it's another to actually feel it," Regina said. "It was a lot of emotions that he was feeling. I think one was, 'Oh, I feel like I'm letting people down, I'm not there, this is such an important year.' And then he kind of circled back to, 'Well, I need to concentrate on me and be all that I can be so that I can try to come back.' It was a range of emotions."

And even through the beginning, Troy held out a seemingly naïve hope that maybe he'd be able to return for the season, maybe by the Ohio State game. He had to get another crack at the Buckeyes -- a team he hadn't been able to beat yet.

Two days after Troy had lain on the practice field screaming, "Put it back in place! Put it back!" after that unfortunate hit, that hit that's just a part of the game, and one day after Regina arrived in Ann Arbor, Butch came from Texas.

The two tag-teamed the doctors' appointments, the visits, the chores and walking Troy's beloved dog, Julius Joseph Woolfolk. Butch had seen college and pro players come back from injuries. Butch was living proof of the comeback, but he was also walking remains of the alternative.

While playing in the NFL, he'd broken his ribs, had his ACL reconstructed and dislocated his shoulder. His teammates had been through the same, or worse.

"It's a different thing when you go through it yourself. To see your kid go through it is 10 times worse," Butch said. "I knew that his leg would heal, I knew that physically he would be all right with the surgeons up there.

"I was more concerned with the mental aspect."

Butch worked on getting Troy to focus on the long term. He knew that the moment Troy began feeling sorry for himself or thinking about how he'd have to use crutches in the snow or how he would have to have that "medically ineligible" label put next to his name, it would all slide downhill. He continued projecting Troy's forward thinking until Troy began looking at the injury as an opportunity to grow.

Silly finally gives way to serious

Butch hadn't even allowed Troy to start playing football until he was 12 years old, despite the fact he had put Jarrel, Troy's older brother by four years, in little league football as a 6-year-old.

"[Troy] wanted to get out on the football field, run around, do cartwheels," Butch said. "He didn't have any interest in playing the game as seriously as it is. He just wanted to act silly on the field and I just said, 'Well, you're not going to play unless you take it serious.' "

Jarrel had always been the more serious of the two boys -- he was laid back and able to take the game seriously. He was Regina's "Mini Me," sweet and even-tempered.

When Jarrel was 4, they had Troy. And Troy? Well, he was feisty from day one. He was the go-getter who jumped off the top of the slide in preschool, only to tell his parents that his broken wrist had simply been a result of his riding the slide correctly.

His parents knew better, even when Troy refused to admit the truth.

But his preschool classmates had no problem outing him, exclaiming to Regina, "Troy flew!"

Yes, Troy was feisty from day one.

Football became serious for Troy when he had his moment that Michigan coach Brady Hoke would describe as "hearing football."

In middle school Troy quickly took to the game. He'd been a standout runner and realized he was always the fastest kid on the field. He could catch whoever had the ball, and then came the day when he initiated contact -- a hard, helmet-to-helmet, intense takedown.

"We actually thought he had made a mistake and run into him the wrong way or something," Butch said. "I needed to see it again, and I saw it again and I saw it again, and I thought, 'OK, we've got something here.' "

Troy thrived on the sound of helmet hitting helmet. He loved taking kids down and instantly became a vicious hitter. It was a shock to his parents.

"But then again, it's Troy. So maybe it wasn't very surprising," Regina said.

At Dulles High School, Troy became notorious for his quiet intensity on the field. In one game he broke a kid's shoulder; in another game, a kid's leg.

Regina approached him after that game.

"I'm a mom, and he's got a mom out there," she told him, alluding to the opponent he'd injured.

"This is what I need to do. I would never hurt anyone intentionally," Troy explained. "It wasn't a low blow or a cut. This is a part of the game."

True Blue

During Troy's junior year of high school, Butch and Regina were convinced that Troy was going to attend the University of Nebraska or one of the Texas schools, but that didn't stop Butch from urging Troy to visit his alma mater in the summer of 2006.

Troy flew up by himself on a Wednesday morning for a Michigan football camp, and by the time Butch joined him two days later, former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr was ready to offer Troy a football scholarship.

"In three days, [Lloyd] did something to my son so that he became a Michigan man," Butch joked.

And even though it was Carr who offered the scholarship, it was then-defensive coordinator Ron English who really wooed Troy.

For most of his playing time in Texas, he had been treated like a child by the coaches, but English broke Troy down and told him that he would relearn everything he thought he knew. It would be an entire reworking of the game that Troy had come to love. English explained that Troy would work the game with a cerebral approach, and if he added that to his God-given abilities he could be something special.

Troy's freshman year was a success; he traveled with the team and played in eight games. But the end of Troy's season also was the end of English's tenure at Michigan.

And it wasn't until Troy's leg was braced and his body was sidelined that he returned to this cerebral point of view.

He became a student of the game in a way he hadn't before. He watched game tape with a new desire to see the big picture; he read up on different schemes and refocused his thoughts on the mechanics of running. He didn't see a cut, he saw how inches and foot placement made the difference in catching a guy.

"I was just going out there and running and trying to benefit off my athletic ability, which I don't think would've been able to take me to the next level," Troy said. "So I'm actually, I don't want to say glad I broke my ankle, but glad to look at the bright side -- to look at being able to understand why I have to play cover 2, why I have to reroute the receiver outside."

Figuring it all out

Troy also drew upon his experiences as one of the top sprinters in Texas. As a runner, it was all about the individual performance, pushing oneself to his or her limit. To excel and to win, which he often did, he had to be his own biggest cheerleader and critic. He had to be in his head at every turn, and understand how the mental aspect was just as important as the physical, if not more so.

Last summer, he explained to Regina how that sprinter's mentality would benefit his job in the secondary, and the defense as a whole.

"We still have to, in our positions, be the best that we can be, because how well we succeed is how the team collectively does," Troy explained to his mom one day. "It is still very much a single effort that you do in conjunction with others."

Just getting started

And then, on the Saturday afternoon of the season opener, Butch, Regina and Jarrel sat on the couch in their living room and watched Troy make early tackles. Butch commented to Regina about how their son, the boy who once turned cartwheels on the field, was almost running a one-man show in the Big House.

"He's back," Butch said to her. "He's loving it, he's living it, he is doing what he's supposed to do."

And then came that kickoff, where again Troy made an aggressive tackle, and for a split second before the commercial break Butch saw that Troy remained on the ground as his teammates jumped up.

It was two days before Butch would get that emotional call from Troy, and like that day sitting in his office, his phone vibrated next to him. The caller ID read: Stan Edwards. It was Butch's former teammate, who, as Butch knew, was sitting in Michigan Stadium watching Troy lie on the ground.

As Butch talked to Stan, he saw the replay of Troy's opposite ankle getting stuck under someone else's leg. He watched his son being wheeled out of the stadium.

"My heart dropped. I didn't know what was going on," Butch said.

He tried to continue watching the game, and the family, who describe themselves as being "extremely positive thinkers," kept telling themselves all was well, Troy would return, Troy would tackle again.

Troy did return to the field with his ankle taped. The commentators noted how gingerly he walked on that foot.

"He will play again," Butch said. It wasn't a question, it wasn't a statement to ease the tension in the room, it was what Butch knew.

But Troy didn't play again, not during the rout of Western Michigan.

After the game, Michigan coach Brady Hoke said Troy would've gone back in if they had needed him.

And then came the game against Notre Dame, under the bright lights of Michigan Stadium. Regina and Butch had flown in for the game, knowing their son would be emerging onto the field with tape on his ankle and a cast on his broken hand.

But they also knew their son -- cast, tape, blood, broken bones -- would come at any player with his rare form of intensity.

Making pain a milestone

Little could Troy have imagined as he lay in Schembechler Hall screaming "Put it back in place!" through the excruciating pain, that it would benefit him more that nobody had the quick fix for him, his ankle could not be put back.

Little could he have known that fighting the massive injury during the 2010 season would only prepare him for a 2011 season, when he'd come out even more aggressive, even more hungry.

It was a new reinforced steel ankle that gave Troy the opportunity of time, which allotted him the ability to look forward -- an ability that any good cornerback needs to have when he's constantly worried about who's behind him. So with his leg in a brace and crutches underneath his arms, at what was the physically weakest point of his life, he told his father that he became his strongest -- for himself, for his team, for every team before him.

And Troy won't let anything get in front of, or behind, him this year.

This time, Butch knows Troy isn't kidding around.

Chantel Jennings covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. She can be reached at jenningsespn@gmail.com.