Etheridge wants to play after injury

AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn safety Zac Etheridge feels blessed to be able to walk after a serious neck injury and expects to play football again.

With his neck immobilized by a brace, Etheridge spoke to reporters and teammates Tuesday, three days after sustaining an injury in the Mississippi game that landed him in the hospital for two nights.

He said his fifth vertebra was cracked and he tore ligaments in his neck in a headfirst collision with teammate Antonio Coleman.

Etheridge said he wants to play again and doctors told him he should be able to. He has to wear the brace, a harness-like device with a support under his chin and running up the back of his neck, for three to four months.

The junior said he probably will not attend Saturday's game against Furman but "I will definitely be at the Iron Bowl" against rival Alabama on Nov. 27.

He was taken by ambulance to a Birmingham hospital Saturday night and was released on Monday. Etheridge and Coleman crashed into each other while trying to tackle Ole Miss running back Rodney Scott.

Etheridge praised Scott for remaining still underneath him on the ground. He planned to talk to him later in the day and had already spoken to Rebels coach Houston Nutt.

"When it first happened, I was paralyzed for a little bit," Etheridge said. "Just laying on that ground, it felt weird not being able to control your body. I've got to take my hat off to Rodney Scott. It was a blessing that he didn't move.

"If he would have moved anywhere, I wouldn't be here today. I'd still be laying in the hospital bed," he said.

Lying on the ground, temporarily unable to do more than wiggle his toes, Etheridge said he could only offer a brief prayer.

"I was in shock, just not being able to move. There was a lot going through my mind," he said. "The only thing I could say was 'Jesus, Jesus,' just calling out his name."

He said one of the first questions he asked doctors was, "Will I be able to play again?" Etheridge gingerly walked up and down the stairs at the football complex Tuesday, but he wasn't complaining about the brace.

"It's tough to sleep," he said. "It's something I'll have to deal with just to get a chance to try to continue my career.

"I would love to be able to step out on the field and continue to play the game but right now I've just got to take it one day at a time," he said.

Auburn coach Gene Chizik said junior college transfer Demond Washington would move from cornerback to strong safety to replace Etheridge. The secondary has also been without injured starters Mike McNeil and Aairon Savage all season.

Chizik was pleased to see Etheridge's progress.

"We're pumped for him," he said. "He's in really good spirits right now. His teammates have had a chance to see him. He's a great young man and he'll rebound well from this. We're just glad he's made a lot of strides since Saturday."

Linebacker Josh Bynes said the team will miss Etheridge's leadership and communication on the field.

"These past couple of weeks, he's been going to coach Chizik one-on-one asking, 'How do I get myself better? What can I do for this defense to make us better?'" Bynes said. "Those are things we didn't know until coach Chizik told us in a meeting Sunday.

"That's the type of guy we have back there, a leader, a guy who's going to do anything for this team and for the defense," he said.

Asked why he chose to speak publicly about his injury instead of resting at home, Etheridge said it was his way of responding to the prayers, text messages and e-mails he received from fans.

"I just want to let the world know that I'm fine," he said. "I just want to thank everybody for their prayers. That helped my family out going through this situation, especially me knowing how much I love this game and love this university.

"I've got to give a heads-up to the fans and everyone that's been praying, because it's been a miracle. I'm just blessed to be able to walk again," he said.