The moment his cleat got stuck in the turf, D'Eriq King felt his right knee cave in, then a sharp pain as he fell to the ground.
Up in the stands at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida, his mother, Cassandra, felt her heart drop. His brother, Keshon, prepared for the worst. The two of them raced toward the locker room, where King went through a series of quick evaluations.
"Can you run?" trainers asked him.
King took off running.
"Can you backpedal?"
He felt no more pain and wanted to go back in the game.
The trainers then asked him to do a series of high knee skips. King tried, but as soon as he put his right leg down, he fell over.
"That's when I knew something was torn," he said.
Though King watched the rest of the 2020 Cheez-It Bowl against Oklahoma State from the sideline, leaning on crutches, the Miami quarterback felt angry, hurt and confused. Only three days earlier, King announced a return to the Hurricanes for a sixth and final collegiate season. This was supposed to be a time for celebration, to finally say goodbye to the hardest year of his life.
When 2020 began, his mother was fighting breast cancer. He transferred from the University of Houston to Miami, leaving his hometown for the first time in his life. Shortly afterward, his father, Eric, died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Then the pandemic shut down campuses across the country. King didn't get a full offseason to learn his new offense or teammates. He battled COVID-19 himself during the season. Now this.
He couldn't help but wonder, "Why me?" and "Why now?" Instead of driving home to Houston to spend extended time with family during winter break, as he had planned, King headed back to Miami for surgery for a torn meniscus and torn ACL. Normal recovery time was nine months at the earliest, so doctors could not guarantee whether he would be cleared to play in eight months' time for the highly anticipated season opener against Alabama on Sept. 4 in Atlanta.
King decided for himself. He would be there, starting at quarterback, taking the first snap. If 2020 was a season of tribulation, 2021 would be a season of triumph.
After he left the hospital the day following surgery in early January, King went straight to rehab. Soon after, he fired off a text to Miami offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee that read, "I'm going to come back faster than anyone else has."
"When I tore it that night, I knew I was going to play the first game; there was no doubt in my mind I was going to come back," King said.
So how exactly did he do it? King gave ESPN a window into his rehab, from Day 1 'til now, including two-a-day sessions, underwater training, gravity-altering treadmills and meticulous film study on his cutting and running.
But more than doing everything his doctors, trainers and therapists asked, King relied heavily on the work ethic and determination instilled in him by his late father, who pushed him to take the most difficult challenges head on, knowing the immense gratification awaiting at the end.
"I've never met an individual like him, the way he handles adversity," said Shawn Sims, one of King's closest friends. "It's almost as if he loves adversity. If things are too simple or too easy, he almost wouldn't want to take the journey."
The journey back to the field began with quad exercises, mostly stretching, with a strict focus on helping the meniscus heal before bearing any weight on the right knee. Keshon and Cassandra stayed with D'Eriq early on to help him get around. Keshon ended up spending the first six weeks with D'Eriq, driving him to every rehab session, cooking meals that suited his new nutrition plan (high in lean proteins, low in fats) and helping with anything he needed around the house.
D'Eriq did rehab twice a day to accelerate his progress: once in the morning, break for lunch, then back for another two hours in the afternoon. He continued this pace for three to four months, advancing from quad activation to balance exercises to workouts focused on the muscles around his leg that protect the knee and hamstring. In addition to his rehab work, he also lifted with his teammates during team workouts and continued attending team and quarterback meetings, diligently preparing for a second year with Lashlee.
"It was inspirational, seeing him go so hard during the workouts, how serious he took it, and how fast he was making progress," Keshon said.
D'Eriq King was already ahead of schedule when he began running for the first time 3½ months after surgery -- first on an underwater treadmill and then on an antigravity treadmill -- allowing therapists and doctors to gauge how much weight his leg could bear. He started on the antigravity treadmill at 60% of his 195-pound body weight, before ramping up by 10% increments, until he could handle running with his full body weight.
Once King cleared that benchmark, he knew he would be ready for the season.
But there was more work to do, starting with cutting on grass. Joe Girardi, a physical therapist for Miami's football program who worked extensively with King, videotaped every single move King made so they could study it together afterward on the big-screen TV in Girardi's office. It provided a more visual way for King to learn the best practices to protect his surgically repaired knee.
"They coached me on every little thing. So if my right leg was not getting as high as my left leg, they'd tell me, or if my knee was outside my body, they would show I need to get it underneath me, stuff like that," King said.
While he continued with rehab, King made time to work with his receivers during summer drills, focusing especially on their timing and rhythm with the deep ball. By the end of July, King said he felt 100 percent, well ahead of the normal timeline for injuries like his.
"We've had to pull him back more than push him forward," Girardi said. "He's been able to really just keep progressing. There hasn't really been any setbacks. It's really that slow-cooking process and trying to continue to take one step forward -- and not go one step forward, two steps back."
Girardi and his team have worked closely with strength and conditioning director David Feeley and his team to make sure everything King does in the weight room, training room and during rehab are perfectly aligned. That continues today, as King prepares to start against Alabama.
Before the offense works out, King goes to Girardi and his team for an extended warm-up, working on his tissues and making sure his muscles are ready to go for lifting. Before meetings, King goes through exercises to activate his muscles, then warm-ups before practice. After practice, he has another session with Girardi to make sure there is no swelling and to prepare him for the next day.
This is all happening with preseason expectations skyrocketing for King, who decided before his injury he wanted to return to Miami to win a championship. When King arrived last season, he immediately upgraded the quarterback position for the Hurricanes, a spot that has lacked consistency over the past five campaigns.
Despite learning his fifth different offense in five seasons playing college football heading into the 2020 season, King threw for 2,686 yards, 23 touchdowns and five interceptions, while rushing for 538 yards and four more scores. However, he said that last season was not up to his standards.
"I felt like I didn't do what I was supposed to do last season, and I want to play a lot better," King said. "I left a lot of plays out there."
"It does my heart good, just to see him go through what he's been through and how he still maintains, stays focused and can still go for his dreams. He always says I'm the strongest person he knows, but he's the strongest person I know." Cassandra King, D'Eriq King's mother
King said his comfort level in the offense is so high right now that he can check in and out of plays and call audibles, something he did infrequently a season ago. Much of that has to do with the continuity on offense, given this is the first time King will play for the same coordinator in consecutive seasons.
"This year, it's wide open: You have the keys to the car, so go drive it," King said. "It allows me to play freely, play to the best of my ability and not worry about, 'Man, I hope I know this play well enough' or 'Did I run it enough times in practice before we call it in a game?' I'm more comfortable all in all."
Lashlee agreed King was in a "great place" with his understanding of the offense, noting he has seen less hesitation and more reacting from King during fall practice.
"His actions always match his words," Lashlee told ESPN. "A lot of people can say that they're coming back in an emotional moment and then work really hard for a month and then when it gets hard or monotonous or you have a few bad days or you're not out there for spring ball, you lose maybe your fire. He never did. That doesn't mean he didn't have those days where he felt that way. But it's been really cool to see him overcome a lot of adversity. And so far, he's thriving in it."
So, when Cassandra King takes her seat in the Georgia Dome on Sept. 4, she will no doubt smile through the nerves that always envelope her before each game. She might even shed a happy tear or two, knowing what seemed impossible just eight months ago was made completely possible by her son.
"It does my heart good, just to see him go through what he's been through and how he still maintains, stays focused and can still go for his dreams," she said, her voice breaking with emotion. "He always says I'm the strongest person he knows, but he's the strongest person I know."