ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan cornerback Blake Countess is a little tired of talking about his knee and whether he’s ready to return. Ninety percent of questions to him during this preseason have been about his ACL injury suffered in the 2012 season opener against Alabama, and how it all plays in his mind.
Countess, a redshirt sophomore, keeps answering all the questions. But he really hasn’t given it too much thought. Countess only watched the game film of it a few times. And really, it didn’t look all that bad.
His injury came on what seemed like a misstep or stumble. It didn't look like it would require surgery and a lost season.
“At first I watched it and was like, ‘How did this happen? How did that one bit of contact make my ACL tear?’ ” Countess said. “It’s kind of hard for me to watch since I know the effects of what happens after it.”
And from the sideline, Michigan secondary coach Curt Mallory saw the same thing. He was not only Countess’ defensive coach, but also the position coach for the spot Countess was playing on the punt team during that injury. Fans and commentators heralded Will Hagerup’s 62-yard punt and only gave passing mention at a Michigan player who slowly ambled from the field.
“I didn’t see much, and by no means am I a physician, but I didn’t see anything other than him come off,” Mallory said. “It wasn’t something that was horrific as far as cutting, but he just twisted wrong. … Sometimes those are the ones that are the worst.”
On the sideline, as Alabama began to run away from Michigan and questions swirled as to his absence, Countess explained to Mallory how he was ready to get back in the game, how his mind was right, how everything was OK. But one look from the athletic trainer told Mallory that it wasn’t the whole story and Countess sat out the rest of the game, and ultimately the season.
Surgery brought a new set of challenges. The brace on his leg was an annoyance. And just as life on crutches became something he could handle, snow began to fall in Ann Arbor.
So he’d crutch in to practices and film sessions, sitting next to Raymon Taylor -- the player who had taken his spot -- and go over schemes two or three times over. It was partly to make sure Taylor knew it and partly to make sure he knew he was still making an impact on the team away from the field.
During away games, as Countess watched from his couch in Ann Arbor, he’d text redshirt senior cornerback J.T. Floyd during halftimes and write notes on the secondary for when they returned.
“It’s easy sometimes when you know you’re not going to play that fall to get away from it and you don’t stay into it. Physically you’re not going to be able to do much, but mentally you can do a lot,” Mallory said. “That offseason really was a mental part of it and that’s where he was able to grow, get better, really learn the playbook.”
Near the end of the season, “coach” Countess was called in to the training room and told to put his crutches against the wall and walk toward strength and conditioning coach Aaron Wellman.
“They were like, ‘All right, now come toward me,’ and I was like, ‘Nah, I’m not going to do that just yet,’ ” Countess said.
Walking felt weird. He felt like a toddler. A few months before, he had been at the top of his game. Now he was debating with Wellman about whether or not he could/should/would take a step. None of it seemed right.
But he couldn’t run until he walked. So naturally, after that session, he began pushing the staff for his run. By the bowl game, the staff let him jog. By spring camp, he had hoped he could jump into drills. But no, he was told, you can cut. That’s it.
Again, he was relegated to the sideline -- sans crutches, but still labeled as someone who wasn’t quite ready to play.
“It’s easy to feel bad for yourself,” Countess said. “But you have to really think about the team and how I could push the guys [at] my position that are in there now, so I definitely think I’ve matured.”
And that more mature Countess believes he's ready to lead this Michigan secondary. He’s mature enough to admit that the injury sometimes still plays on his mind, that tendinitis bugs him from time to time. And he’s mature enough to take himself out in those moments, knowing that a single misstep can have a much larger effect.
The younger players and coaches see that.
“I think there’s an appreciation that he had for playing. Sometimes you take it for granted,” Mallory said. “The thing he went through a year ago, painful as it was, he has grown from it and realizes it can be taken away from you at any moment. You see that in his work ethic and you see that in his drive.”