FRISCO, Texas -- The hit that changed everything came on a routine slant Justyn Ross had run hundreds of times.
Only this time, in the spring of 2020, he did not see the linebacker coming, and the force of the collision sent Ross to the turf. Though he felt numbness and tingling in his arms as he lay on the practice field, Ross figured he just got a neck stinger and would be back to normal soon.
Clemson took Ross in for tests to his neck and spine, per team protocols. Within a few days, Ross felt fine and was getting ready for practice when coach Dabo Swinney called and asked him to come to his office.
When Ross arrived, he saw the entire Clemson medical team sitting there, along with Swinney. His mom, Charay Franklin, was on speakerphone. Ross had no idea what was happening. Then the doctors started explaining what they saw on the scans.
This was not an ordinary football stinger.
They told Ross he had a congenital fusion in his spine, a condition he was born with called Klippel-Feil syndrome. Though he had stingers in the past, this was the first time he had any scans on his neck and spine revealing the condition to both Ross and his mother for the first time.
Ross was stunned. The doctors told him he may never play football again. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, those with this condition should avoid activities that can injure the neck.
Tears streamed down his face as Ross listened in disbelief. He played football his entire life with this condition. It made no sense that it was no longer safe. Just two years earlier, Ross burst onto the scene in Clemson's College Football Playoff championship run, combining for 301 receiving yards and four touchdowns in blowout wins over Notre Dame and Alabama as a true freshman. After a strong sophomore campaign -- 865 receiving yards and eight TDs -- he seemed on a glide path to the first round of the 2021 NFL draft.
Now he was being told he might never put on a uniform again.
"It was heartbreaking," Ross said. "I'm not going to lie."
ON A WINDY DAY a week before this year's NFL combine, Ross pulls into a sprawling soccer complex for some extra work with his personal coach, TJ Brown. Getting his route running back into top form is the immediate priority, and the grass on these particular fields is nearly perfect for the practice.
Within 15 minutes, little girls no older than 10 start arriving for their own after-school practice, and it becomes clear this field has been reserved specifically for them. Rather than pack up and leave, Ross works out a deal -- he promises to only use one small area in the corner to run his routes.
As Ross works on his burst in the shadow of a soccer net, the girls practice their passing just a few yards away, their high ponytails whipping their faces when the wind gusts. Former Clemson quarterback Zerrick Cooper has joined Ross and Brown, and every so often, he glances at the girls and chuckles.
The whole scene feels entirely surreal -- a 6-foot-4, 210-pound wide receiver prospect once projected as a top-15 prospect working out among kids who have no idea who he is, or why he happened upon their field during their normal Tuesday afternoon practice.
If there is any symbolism here about the world moving on while he continues to work unnoticed, Ross ignores it. Because there is no room to think about anything else but his certain and firm belief about what he is doing in this very moment.
He runs the routes again. And again. And again.
He will play in the NFL. Yes, he will.
"Once a team gets me, they're going to get everything out of me," Ross told ESPN. "I'm still that same player everybody knows."
That might be hard for some to remember. Ross has not played a fully healthy season since 2019, when he was a sophomore at Clemson, making him one of the most difficult players to assess and project headed into the draft on April 28.
What makes his evaluation even more difficult? Ross is attempting to become the first known player to make the NFL with a congenital fusion in his spine.
"Justyn has a condition that is very rare, and to my knowledge, there is no precedent of another high-level American football player with this condition playing football," said Dr. David Okonkwo, who performed the surgery on Ross that allowed him to return to play. "So we were paving new road as we went through the process."
FROM THE BEGINNING, there was one glimmer of hope that Ross clung to: the potential for surgery to relieve the pressure on his spine, which would give him a chance to play again. But even then, there would be no guarantees.
Shortly after the diagnosis, the coronavirus pandemic shut down campus and Ross went back home to Alabama. He continued to work out, telling himself the doctors would realize they made a mistake, that he was fine, that he did not need surgery. The hit he took that started all this was nothing compared to harder hits in his career, and nothing had ever happened to him.
Reality said something different. Over the next several weeks, multiple neurosurgeons told Ross they would not clear him to play football, saying the risks including paralysis or even death. Despite that, Ross pressed forward trying to save his career.
Through Clemson, he connected with Okonkwo, the team neurosurgeon for the Steelers and director of the Neurotrauma Clinical Trials Center at the University of Pittsburgh. Okonkwo had performed spinal surgery on Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier in 2017 after a hit left him temporarily paralyzed. Shazier never played football again, but he regained his ability to walk.
Ross and his mom flew to Pittsburgh to meet with Okonkwo.
Ross underwent a series of extensive tests on his spine, including X-rays, CT scans and MRIs, in addition to sophisticated video graphic analysis of the motion of his spine to see whether he would even be a candidate for surgery.
It took several months and consultations with other experts before Okonkwo determined he would proceed with the surgery.
"Dr. Okonkwo is very confident in what he says, he's very knowledgeable about his work, so he made us feel comfortable when we met him," Franklin said. "He never made me feel like he had any doubt in what he could do. So that's where we got the confidence that OK, we can go ahead and do this."
Ross had the surgery in June 2020. Okonkwo removed a disc that was pushing backward to free up space for the spinal cord, leaving behind a graft and plate to hold everything together.
"The procedure itself is a very common procedure, but this procedure for this specific reason is very rare," Okonkwo said. "It is virtually unique to have done this surgery in someone with Klippel-Feil syndrome, who happens to be one of the most talented football players in the United States of America.
"There are other options, but those other options are surgeries where no one goes back to play football. This was the best combination of the exact right treatment for Justyn Ross as a person, while simultaneously preserving the possibility of playing football again."
Swinney and chief of football administration Woody McCorvey flew to Pittsburgh to be with Ross and his mother, then spoke with Okonkwo afterward.
"I asked him, 'How did the surgery go?'" Swinney said. "I said, 'Did you go 9-3 or 6-6? He said, 'I went 15-0.' And I said, 'Well, I like that answer.'"
But Okonkwo also cautioned Swinney, telling him even if Ross did everything right, there was still a chance he wouldn't be able to play.
After the surgery, the focus turned to getting the bones of the spine to heal properly, and to strengthen the muscles that support the neck and spine, a process that usually takes nine to 12 months.
In order to amplify the healing process, Okonkwo said Ross used a device called a bone growth stimulator, in addition to taking a biologic treatment that does the same. The stimulator is worn like a necklace a few hours a day, and it creates an electromagnetic field that attracts the cells that are responsible for bone healing.
Okonkwo worked hand-in-hand with the Clemson medical team to ensure Ross was on the right track. Every three months, Ross had to check in so both Okonkwo and the Clemson staff could assess his healing with a battery of tests.
In the meantime, the 2020 season had begun, and Ross could only watch from the sideline as his teammates played without him. He felt helpless, and it was hard to stop thinking about what he would be doing on the field.
Led by future No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence, the Tigers won the ACC and returned to the College Football Playoff, where they lost 49-28 to Ohio State. Given Ross' heroics on the same stage two years earlier, it was hard not to think how things might have played out had he been available.
"He's an elite talent, he's an explosive leaper, unbelievable body control and ball skills," Swinney said. "He's incredibly explosive in and out of his cuts, great change of direction, lateral movement. He's fast and a great finisher on the ball, so there's a lot of good to talk about Justyn Ross as a football player."
But as Ross watched the entire 2020 season unfold without him, he had no idea whether he would ever get the opportunity to make those plays again.
Still, he made progress in his rehab and hit every benchmark Okonkwo and the Clemson medical team laid out for him. By the spring, he was able to participate in non-contact drills in practice, doing everything but taking hits.
Then in June 2021, Ross went back to Pittsburgh to go through the same battery of tests he did the year before to determine whether his spine had healed enough to try and play football.
Okonkwo felt Ross could play again but his was not the only voice on the subject. Clemson, in collaboration with experienced and globally recognized experts in the field, provided multiple assessments and perspectives of his condition, and then the school hosted a series of meetings to review all of the information, and shared it with Ross and his family. Some of those perspectives included doctors who did not believe Ross should play.
Ultimately, the decision would belong to Ross and his mother.
"Justyn is in a position to make this decision for himself," Okonkwo said. "There is no such thing as zero risk. Can you help someone understand the relationship between their risk and the risk of their peers so that they can make a decision for themselves? Because every athlete makes this decision. Whether or not you have a spine issue, every one of those football players make a conscious choice to play this sport, knowing that there are risks."
Ross explains the risk is worth taking because, "I want to put my family in a better position. That was one of the biggest things that can help me do that. So I don't want to give up on that."
Franklin sat in on every meeting and every conversation with Ross and the doctors, fully supportive of the decision to play again.
"He healed the way Dr. Okonkwo wanted him to heal," Franklin said. "I don't think his risk is any higher than anyone else. It's scary, but I've been going through him playing football since he was 4 years old. I just feel confident Justyn knows how to continue to stay safe. I know it still can happen. There can be that one person out there that hits him the wrong way, but that's the risk you take even if he didn't have a neck injury. I want to see him happy, and if playing football makes him happy, I'm going to support him."
IT TOOK MONTHS before Ross gained final clearance from Clemson to play. But the joy he felt was replaced with agony in short order. The day he was set to begin practice last August, Ross found out he tested positive for COVID-19. The virus hit him particularly hard, as Ross had trouble breathing and lost 15 pounds.
Though Ross was not in his best physical shape when he returned to practice, he did everything he could to prepare for the season opener against Georgia, then only weeks away. Swinney said coaches designed a play for Ross on the second play of his first scrimmage so he could get tackled for the first time in 20 months.
"I was super nervous," Swinney said. "He gets tackled, and he pops right up and everybody breathed."
Soon enough, there was another setback. Ross says he started feeling pain in his left foot and went to the trainers. X-Rays showed a stress fracture.
Ross elected not to have surgery, opting to play through the pain. The 2021 season meant too much. He had to be back on that field, even if he was not completely healthy, to show everybody he could still play.
"I felt like I had a point to prove," Ross said. "Coming off the neck injury, everybody's going to question what you're going to bring to the table. I had to prove a point and show the world, just let everybody see me on the field. I didn't say anything to anybody about the stress fracture. I kept going.'"
Franklin was in the stands for the opener in Charlotte, both excited and nervous. "I was ready to run onto the field if somebody would have hit him the wrong way," she says with a chuckle.
Though Clemson lost and Ross had just four catches for 26 yards, when he called his mom afterward he only wanted to talk about one thing.
"Mom!" Ross said. "Did you see me get hit?"
"I did see you get hit. Is that exciting?" she asked.
"Yeah I'm excited!" he said. "I got hit, and I got back up."
The offensive struggles that began in the opener continued through the season. Meanwhile, Ross' foot became so swollen, trainers would have to wrap it so tight, his foot looked mummified -- just so he could play.
Needless to say, it was not the way Ross envisioned the 2021 season going for him, or the offense.
"It was pretty frustrating just because I know the potential, and it's still not happening," Ross said. "I'm expecting to come into the season as the top receiver throughout the whole college football, and once I saw how the season was going, I knew it was not going to be that so I had to do the best that I could do and try to keep my team lifted up."
Ross gutted out every game, his pain tolerance threshold seemingly reset week after week. Improbable as it sounds, the worry went from his neck to his foot. Finally in November, after playing in 10 games, Ross decided he needed to have foot surgery and begin preparing for the draft. He finished the season with team highs in catches (46) and receiving yards (514) while adding three touchdown catches on 471 snaps.
"He played with a broken bone in his foot," Swinney said. "To me, that's all you really need to know about the kid. He just came off a yearlong rehabilitation and then plays with a crack in his foot and you would have never known it. He never complained. He just competed."
Ross opted to begin his NFL combine training at EXOS athletic training in Frisco. While there, his foot rehab limited what the trainers and coaches could do with him, but that did not stop him from working on his upper body strength or putting back on the weight he lost last season.
Once he was cleared in February to resume running full speed, Ross got to work on not only his 40-yard dash time, but all the drills NFL teams expect receivers to complete.
"He knows what it takes to train to be able to get somewhere," said Jordan Brown, performance manager at EXOS. "And when you're not able to train, you have that feeling of urgency, like I need to do something now, I need to get it going. He's a phenomenal athlete, and he's someone who works his butt off."
TJ Brown, his personal coach and the co-CEO and wide receiver specialist at TopShelf Performance in Atlanta, flew to Texas to help before the combine. On the day they worked out at the soccer field, Brown made sure to specifically drill Ross on getting out of his stance in the right amount of steps, which helps lead to the type of separation that makes Ross such an elite receiver.
Asked to describe what it has been like watching Ross overcome the bevy of challenges he has faced, TJ Brown said, "When he's got his mind set on something, there's nothing that can get in his way. Especially when you come from nothing and this is all you've got, this is what you believe in and you're going to put your mind to it."
Ross did not participate in any on-field drills at the combine in Indianapolis. Instead, he opted to do that at the Clemson Pro Day in March, giving him another month to fully prepare. As Franklin made the three-hour drive from her home in Phenix City, Alabama, to Clemson to support her son, she felt a knot in her throat that never quite went away as she kept thinking, "Justyn is going to be OK. It is all going to work out for him."
When and where Ross is drafted fully depends on the team that decides it wants to take a chance on him. He is fully aware there are probably some teams that do not have him on their draft board. But all it takes is one team to pick up the phone and call.
ESPN draft analyst Jordan Reid projects Ross as a fourth-round selection, noting the perfect fit would be with former Clemson teammates Lawrence and Travis Etienne Jr. in Jacksonville -- a team that could use help at receiver. Ross will be watching back home in Alabama with family and friends in a house his mom rented for the three-day draft, waiting on his phone to ring.