TUCSON, Ariz. -- Arizona receivers Austin Hill and David Richards erupt into cheers as Wildcats linebacker Marquis Flowers zeros in on a UNLV fumble. "Scoop and score, scoop and score!" they both shout, practically in unison. When Flowers gets tackled by his shoestring at the 9-yard line, they chortle a bit at their defensive teammate just missing a rare opportunity to celebrate in the end zone. Then the Wildcats' two best receivers become quiet.
Arizona's offense takes the field, but Hill and Richards do not. The Wildcats score two plays later to go up 17-0 in what will become an easy rout. They celebrate in the end zone and on the sideline, but Hill and Richards can absorb the scene in only two dimensions. They are watching the road game on a giant-screen television in the football players' lounge on Arizona's campus.
It's a cool space in the team's fancy new football building -- comfortable chairs, pool tables, two pop-a-shot games, cheesesteaks and fresh-baked brownies on hand -- but it's not the same as going to battle and scoring touchdowns with your teammates.
"It's not fun at all. I just wish I was out there," Hill said, before trying to lighten his morose sentiments. "Well, since we're not throwing the ball as much, maybe not."
Richards and Hill are injured. They didn't make the trip to UNLV because their presence would count against the travel roster limit of 70 players. Richards is eyeballing a return from his foot injury in two weeks -- in time for the Pac-12 opener at Washington.
Hill, the Pac-12's second-leading receiver in 2012, however, is out for the season after he tore his ACL on April 10 during the second-to-last session of a spring practice. As he remembers it, he was having a good day. Then he caught a pass on a crossing route, and backup safety Will Parks hit him high and from behind. He planted his left foot to brace himself.
"It just gave out," Hill said.
"At first I denied it," he said. "I've had friends tear their ACLs and they always said they felt or heard a pop. When it happened to me, I really didn't feel anything. It felt like I hyperextended it. It was just numb, felt weird. I was able to get up and start walking."
He didn't need to be helped off the field. He tried to convince himself it was just a tweak. A partial tear, at worst.
"Then when I got the news, I still denied it," he said." I probably denied it for a good day or so. I didn't want to believe it. I sat out in the middle of the field for a while, just trying to think, 'What am I going to do now?'"
That's just it. Football is the ultimate team game, but when a player gets injured, particularly when he's lost for an entire season, the team mantra becomes "next man in," and fans move on as well. A player not playing is forgotten. Surgery? It's just a word in a beat writer's notebook, not something scary that involves anesthesia and leaves permanent scars.
For that injured player, getting back to the game becomes an individual challenge, separate from the team. Football is taken away and it is replaced by the drudgery of rehabilitation. There's plenty of time to think. Maybe too much time.
In multiple interviews separated by three weeks, Hill alternated between optimism for the future and frustration at being outside looking in.
One day he said, "It sounds weird, but now I'm actually kind of happy it happened. My goal is to be 10 times better than I was when I come back. To be better at everything."
Another he groaned, "It's tough to watch. I'm not going to lie. It's one of the toughest things I've had to do."
An inconvenient injury
A child starts playing football because the uniforms are cool and it's fun to run into people. If he's any good, he starts dreaming of college ball and even the NFL. If he gets a scholarship to a big-time program, that dream advances to a goal: Getting paid to play on Sundays. And if he has a sophomore year like Austin Hill did, catching 81 passes for 1,364 yards -- 16.8 yards per reception -- with 11 touchdowns, that goal evolves into a plan.
Hill had a plan. At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, he was another impressive season away from the NFL. With an 8-month-old daughter, he also had real-world responsibilities. Among many other things, his knee injury is inconvenient. It wasn't part of the plan. Imagine if you were that close to realizing a lifetime goal, and then a random event delayed it for a year, at best.
Hill is different from many college football players whose NFL dream blossoms into legitimacy. For one, he grew up comfortably. Second, he grew up comfortably because his father, David Hill, was an NFL tight end for 12 seasons for the Los Angeles Rams and Detroit Lions, twice playing in the Pro Bowl. He has two uncles who played more than 13 years in the NFL, including receiver Jim Hill. Two older brothers played college football, including Aaron Hill, a receiver on the 2000 Oregon State team that bludgeoned Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.
So there's plenty of football wisdom in his family. That was available to him after he had surgery on May 15, and it helped him keep things in perspective. He spent the first two weeks at home in Southern California, his left knee in a unwieldy brace. He couldn't put any weight on his leg, so he could walk only with crutches. And, yes, sometimes he felt sorry for himself.
"They hated it," Hill said of living with his parents. "They said I was just as bad as my daughter."
The good news for Hill is he says he never experienced any significant pain, before or after surgery. He never took any pain medication. A day after his procedure, he could bend his knee 100 degrees, significantly more than most patients after surgery. After two weeks, he returned to Arizona so he could begin earnest rehabilitation.
At first, he'd get strapped to a machine that would bend his knee for him. Then had to learn to walk again, starting with short distances, trying to be natural and not favor the leg with a limp.
"The hardest thing to do was actually just lift my leg up on the table on its own strength," he said. "I had no strength in it. I was always picking it up with my hands. But they told me, 'No, don't do that.' It took me three or four days to lift my left on its own. It was a crazy experience to go through. Being an athlete, being able to do all these things -- then being put on crutches. It's really hard. I know it was for me. It kinda made me mad."
After about 4½ weeks, he could ditch the crutches and walk normally. Rehab became a job, the center of his day. He'd wake up, eat, go to rehab, lift weights, ice his knee, eat, go to rehab, ice his knee, eat and go to bed. Then do the same the next day. A new wrinkle was added on Aug. 5 when preseason practices begin. That wrinkle was watching practice.
"That's when it hits you that you can't help your team," he said. "When you're on the field and things are happening or people aren't stepping up, it's easy for you to get face-to-face with them and go, 'Hey, let's go. Let's step it up. Do your job.' It's hard to do that when you're not strapped up in a helmet and on the field with them."
Unbearable to watch
Richards is scrolling through his phone, reading Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel's beastly numbers from Saturday against Sam Houston State.
"He's ballin'," Richards says.
"You can't even hate," Hill replies.
It's interesting to experience college football players relegated to the role of fan. Both Richards and Hill have strong opinions on other teams and players and have pretty amusing takes on their coaches, past and present. Throughout the game, they call out potential checks based on the way the UNLV defense lines up. Richards harrumphs when Wildcats QB B.J. Denker misses an audible at the line of scrimmage.
Interjects Hill, "We're not going to run those plays this week, bro. We're going to save those for the Pac-12."
Sophomore receiver Johnny Jackson gets flagged for a false start at the Rebels' 32-yard line.
"He got excited about zero coverage [man-to-man]," Hill says.
Hill then explains that he prefers to face a zone, particularly cover-3. He says Rich Rodriguez's offense is well-suited to pick apart zone looks. This leads into a segue from Richards and Hill on how dominant, physical cornerbacks can disrupt an offense.
"If I were coaching a team, I'd always be recruiting two badass corners who can play straight man-to-man all the time," Hill said.
The central theme of the evening from these two receivers, however, is disappointment in Arizona's passing game. While the Wildcats don't need to throw to whip UNLV, the passing game's inefficiency -- QB B.J. Denker is 8-for-21 for 81 yards -- concerns them, as it surely concerns Denker and Rodriguez.
Says Richards, "They'd be throwing more if we were in there."
Richards likely will be at Washington on Sept. 28, but Hill's next big date is a doctor's appointment on Sept. 26. He expects to get cleared for more running and heavy lifting on his surgically repaired knee, such as squats and leg extensions, exercises for his left quad that he's not yet been allowed to perform.
Before a Saturday morning workout, he admits he's been pushing the pace. He jogged out his first routes since he got hurt with a trainer before his teammates went to UNLV. No sharp cuts. Some curl routes and hooks, stutter-stepping into loose breaks.
"I was mad," he said. "Because it made me feel like I could play."
If all goes well with his doctor's appointment, he would begin what Hill calls his "percents" -- running and cutting at 60 percent, then 75 percent, then 90 percent. That leads into an obvious question: What if he hits 100 percent in late October or early November, a not-unreasonable timetable considering the present pace of his rehabilitation? What if the Wildcats are surging in the Pac-12 South and he can come back and help?
Talk about ambivalence. Hill could help his team, and a strong homestretch performance from him could put him back on his original NFL timeline. But he also recalls former Wildcats safety Adam Hall coming back too early and reinjuring a surgically repaired knee.
"If it's there and I'm feeling 100 percent -- maybe," he said. "Really, at that point, I'd have to be feeling 110 percent. I'd have to be feeling even better than I felt before the injury to be comfortable playing. I don't want to be the guy who tries to prove a point to everyone and then in the process ruins his career."
In other words, the chances for a return this season are remote and, in any event, he's a ways away from that question riddling his life.
Plotting a return
Hill and Richards are loving the newly stout Arizona defense on display against UNLV. They love freshman linebacker Scooby Wright: "Scooby is a baller," Hill says. What about safety Tra'Mayne Bondurant after he records his second pick-six of the season? "He's just a really good football player," Hill says.
And, of course, there's the Wildcats' meager passing game.
"I feel like things would be different if we were out there," Hill says. "They don't have a lot of confidence in the offense yet. So it sucks. I don't like this at all."
Their reaction is typical, particularly among injured star players. They know they could make their team better, perhaps even transform a season. Football games are fragile things. While there are 22 guys on the field at a time, outstanding individual efforts can create decisive swings in momentum. A few of those -- either way -- can make or break a season. That's what nags at a star player who is relegated to the passive experience of watching.
"Excruciating is a good word for it," said Colorado receiver Paul Richardson, who blew out his knee before the Buffaloes' disastrous 2012 season. "All I could think about last season was what I could have done or how I could have helped."
Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov suffered a major knee injury in game three of the 2011 season, which ended for the Cardinal with a 3-point overtime loss in the Fiesta Bowl to Oklahoma State. Skov's role with his team is about more than being one of the nation's best inside linebackers. He's also a fiery leader known for his locker room speeches. So his play and leadership were taken away from a team that was close to insinuating itself into the national title picture.
Skov said he felt "helpless" and described the experience as "incredibly tough."
"When you lose that involvement, from a [sense] of self-awareness, you kind of feel a slight disconnect because you can't actively participate," Skov said.
For Hill, the frustration has ebbed and flowed during rehabilitation. It flowed the day before Arizona returned from its preseason camp getaway at Fort Huachuca. That day, he worked out three times to redirect his emotions. And it flowed again when he watched the season opener at home against Northern Arizona from the sideline. That was far more difficult than watching Game 2 on TV, Hill and Richards agreed.
"It's easy to just turn off the TV and get on with something else to take my mind off it," Hill said. "When you have to come to the game and stand on the sideline in your jersey, and then you get yelled at for being too close to the sidelines and you have to back up or sit on the bench, that's hard to take."
Still, Hill is pretty good at spinning things forward in a positive way. He's excited that his girlfriend and baby girl will be coming to live with him in three weeks. He's optimistic about the progress of his recovery thus far.
He's even got a new plan.
"I want to break every single record here," he said. "I came here to become the best receiver I could possibly be. I think with this ACL injury, I've become a better person because of it. It's a short little part of my life I have to go through right now. I'm going to make the best of it."
Yet, even with the UNLV game well in hand in the second half, Hill and Richards couldn't hold back a simultaneous sigh when a Wildcats receiver lets a potential big play slip through his fingers.