Ole Miss' D.T. Shackelford pushes onward

The golden rule in our business is that there is no cheering in the press box.

At least, there’s not supposed to be.

That said, I don’t mind admitting that I was cheering for D.T. Shackelford to be back on the field this season for Ole Miss. The junior linebacker and emotional leader for the Rebels had been working feverishly to get back from two ACL surgeries on his right knee.

Shackelford hasn’t gone through any contact (or played “real football,” as he calls it) since first tearing his ACL in the spring prior to the 2011 season.

Initially, he had hoped to get back some time during the 2011 season, but his knee wasn’t getting any stronger during the recovery process, and another MRI determined that it was partially torn again.

So Shackelford had a second surgery on the same knee in late February. He missed all of spring practice earlier this year, but had his sights set on being back for preseason practice and playing this season.

There was some progress along the way, and Shackelford remained hopeful. But upon meeting with doctors earlier this month, it was clear that he wasn’t going to be close to 100 percent this season. The gut-wrenching decision was made for Shackelford to sit out a second straight season and put all of his effort into being ready for the 2013 season.

“The hardest part is not being out there with my teammates, especially when you go through a season like we had last year,” said Shackelford, who led the Rebels with five sacks during the 2010 season and later became the first Ole Miss non-senior to receive the Chucky Mullins Courage Award.

Even though Shackelford won’t be out there making tackles, he’ll still be contributing. He’ll resume his role as an unofficial student coach. It’s not the same as having Shackelford in every huddle and knowing he’s going to be bearing down on the quarterback on key downs, but his teammates believe in him and gain inspiration by just having him around.

“He’s an amazing guy, a tremendous leader,” Ole Miss junior safety Charles Sawyer said. “He’s always there. Even if he’s not in pads, he’s there motivating guys and making everybody feel like they’re important.”

One of the most refreshing things about Shackelford is how selfless he is. Sure, he misses football and would give anything to be out there playing again. But it says something about him as a person that his greatest regret is not being able to help his teammates at a time when the Rebels could use all the help they can get. They’ve lost 14 straight SEC games.

“It’s one thing to lead from the sideline, but it’s another thing to lead in between those white lines,” Shackelford said.

There’s no breaking his spirit, either. He realizes that some people have counted him out after two different surgeries and incorporates that into his workouts. This latest setback has only fueled his fire.

“I just want the opportunity again,” Shackelford said. “Sometimes we forget it’s a blessing to be out there playing. We take it for granted. I can promise you that I don’t take anything for granted.”

Keeping the swelling down in his knee has been one of the trickiest parts for Shackelford, who’s been running sprints, stadium steps and doing a little bit of cutting.

And through it all, Shackelford hasn’t lost his focus in the classroom. He graduated in May with a degree in history and a minor in English. He’ll start on his master’s degree this fall in higher education and wants to be a principal.

“I’ve been playing this game my whole life and you have all these goals, and when you get hurt like this, it forces you to readjust your focus a little bit,” Shackelford said. “The knee injury drove me to do so much more. I got my degree in three years and love working with kids.

“That’s the stuff that keeps me going, and I’m not going to stop.”

Forgive me while I stand up and applaud.