CLEMSON - Amari Rodgers was about the only person around Clemson in March who thought he wouldn't miss most of the season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
The Tigers starter, second on the national champions with 55 receptions in 2018, told anyone who would listen he'd be back for most if not all of 2019. And there was Rodgers, making two of his biggest ever catches less than six months after his ACL operation.
"I guess he knew what he was talking about," Rodgers' father, Tee Martin, said in a phone interview.
Martin, the former Tennessee national championship quarterback and currently a Vols' assistant, rushed from Knoxville to Clemson as Rodgers prepared for surgery, all the while his son telling him that this would not slow him down or ruin his junior season.
"I feel like I have a different mindset than a lot of people out there," Rodgers said. "I won't let anybody outwork me. So I put in the extra work every single day to get back."
Rodgers and the top-ranked Tigers (2-0, 1-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) head to Syracuse (1-1, 0-0) on Saturday night.
Many counted Rodgers out of the early part of the season. But he went for treatment and strengthening sessions twice a day during the summer once given the green light to work.
"That's not normal," he said. "But I just wanted to get back earlier than
people said I would be back. I just wanted to do anything I could. It paid off."
Rodgers is a 5-foot-10, 210-pound junior from Knoxville, Tennessee , who started all 15 games in Clemson's championship season a year ago. He finished second on the team with 55 catches and his role figured to increase with the departure of slot receiver Hunter Renfrow. But that seemed to fade when Rodgers was on the ground in pain last March 25.
Instead, Rodgers' told his parents soon after he'd be back for A&M and got to work making his belief a reality.
Martin remembered a few years ago when Rodgers had a shoulder injury as a high school freshman and showed a single-minded desire to rehab. Martin, then an assistant at Southern Cal, said all Rodgers wanted to do was work to improve his injury. "What kind of kid visits Southern California doesn't want to go to the beach or see the sights?" Martin said. "Amari was focused on getting back on the field with his teammates."
Martin regularly checked in with Clemson trainer Danny Poole or Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney and receivers coach Jeff Scott to make sure things went smoothly. At each juncture when Rodgers was medically cleared to run or make a different move on the knee, his father would ask, "You sure?"
The answer was always, "Yes."
Rodgers said there were no setbacks during his comeback and as the season closed in, he kept assuring Swinney and Scott he was ready. Rodgers warmed up in full pads for the opener with Georgia Tech on Aug. 29 before sitting out the game. The week of the Texas A&M game when Rodgers thought the coaches would cautiously sit him once more, he sent a text to Swinney, saying, "I promise you, I'm ready."
Rodgers on the field for Clemson's second offensive series against the Aggies. The big moment, at least for Martin and Clemson, came in the second quarter on Rodgers' first catch. It was an awkward tackle, Rodgers said, and his got up slowly. But soon ran back to the sideline.
"Everybody was, 'Are you straight? Are you straight?'" Rodgers said smiling. "They thought I got hurt because it was a weird-looking tackle. But it felt good."
Martin watched at the hotel before Tennessee's game with BYU and wondered the same thing until he saw his son jogging off normally.
"I was happy to see that he was OK," Martin said.
Rodgers said the only time he moved cautiously was during the Tigers' traditional opening as he carefully ran down the hill into Memorial Stadium. He is grateful he stayed strong and focused during grueling workouts, knowing how many people he's seen let injuries slow them down.
"The good ones, they think about the future and how it's going to better them," he said. "That's what I did. I thought about the future and how much it's going to better me."
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