Blaine Irby's miraculous return

AUSTIN, Texas -- Blaine Irby did it again Saturday.

He walked.

Then he ran.

Then he caught a touchdown pass for the third straight game.

That is how it was always supposed to be for the Texas tight end.

That's almost how it never was. Not the football part. That is but an asterisk to Irby's story. That Irby walked, that is the miracle. That is the story of inspiration and perspiration the senior carries with him everywhere.

"It was a horrific injury."

Those were the words of Texas strength and conditioning director Jeff Madden.

It was September 20, 2008, the play came in from the sideline -- 27-Naked-Ohio -- Irby's number was being called. It was the California kid's chance to make a contribution for his Longhorns during his sophomore season.

He never had the chance.

"Before we got to him, I think with our experience of watching tackles and watching guys hit the ground, you realize without the slow motion of the replay that there was something wrong with how he landed and [how] he was responding on the field," Texas trainer Kenny Boyd said. "We knew there was something terribly wrong."

Irby's knee was gone.

The ACL, LCL, meniscus, cartilage, articular cartilage and muscle tendons were shredded. Most significantly the peroneal nerve was damaged. Irby, an athlete his entire life, could no longer feel his foot. The medical term was foot drop.

"It's when you lose motor function of your foot," Boyd said. "You can't support the foot. You can't walk with a normal gait. So basically the foot drop slaps the ground, and that was all because of nerve injury. Nerve enervates the muscle there that allows you to do that."

Irby had a five-percent chance of ever walking normally again. His chances of playing football again were less than that.

"In our heart of hearts we had heard that he had such a low percentage of getting the opportunity to do [play football], my job is just to help him be the best he can be," Madden said. "If he's just learning how to walk again, that's my job is to try and help him walk again."

Irby didn't want to walk. He wanted to run. He wanted to be what he had once been -- a player for Texas.

"It's hard to explain, that feeling you get playing football with your buddies and you're sweating day in and day out with those guys," he said. "I just missed that feeling. I missed the game of football."

It took three surgeries over 26 months to rebuild the knee. But it was up to Irby to help regenerate feeling in his foot.

"I think, when an athlete has an injury like this, initially they look at it as a hiatus from their career or they terminate," assistant strength and conditioning coach Jesse Ackerman said. "It's actually a grieving process. So when you see that, I don't think Blaine ever looked at it as a termination. He always looked at is as 'I will get back.' So yeah, he's one of those guys that kept believing."

To keep that belief and hope alive, Irby stuck with his teammates and stuck with his routines. When the tight ends met with coach Bruce Chambers, Irby was there, watching the film, pointing out spots where the guys could get better. It was in December of 2009, as the team was preparing for the BCS title game, that Irby felt something.

"We were watching film of the previous practice and just kind of looking down at my foot," he said. "I was just trying to mentally get it to move, and for the previous year it wasn't moving and then all of a sudden it just kind of twitched for about maybe half an inch.

"So I quickly kind of excused myself, and I remember going over and telling Kenny [Boyd] about it and showing him, and then I remember just calling my dad and my girlfriend and everybody, and everyone was just kind of ecstatic."

The grins became cheers this year.

The first day of pads in August, after nearly three years and hundreds of hours of rehab, Irby was back out on the field.

Chambers looked down at his play script and there was 27-Naked-Ohio. The coach called it.

"He was in the huddle. I was on the side, but I was watching him," Chambers said. "He just kind of bounced out of the huddle like he always does and ran the play, caught the ball, then came out and looked at me. And I try to downplay it. He just looked at me and said, 'Thanks, Coach.' "

Then Irby got right back into the huddle, another player, just like he always wanted.

Carter Strickland covers University of Texas football and recruiting for HornsNation

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