T.J. Thorpe had been through this before, twice already, so he had a good idea of what to expect when he sat down with the doctor after another broken foot. The conversations before hadn’t gone so well.
“It’s just one of those things that I’ve never had good news with this thing,” Thorpe, a junior receiver at North Carolina, said last week. “Every time it’s always been a season (ending) thing, or (being out for) six months, eight months, whatever.”
Thorpe suffered a broken left foot Aug. 2, the second day of preseason practice. It was the same foot he broke on Aug. 5, 2012, and again on Feb. 7, 2013.
Both times, the injury left him unable to play for long periods. He missed the 2012 season and spring practice in 2013. So he was expecting the worst, again, when he met with Dr. Robert Anderson, a Charlotte-based orthopedic surgeon who specializes in the foot and ankle.
Instead, though, Thorpe said “it was a breath of fresh air.”
“Because the first thing he walked in and said was, ‘T.J., you know, we’ve got some good news and some bad news,’” Thorpe said.
Thorpe was used to hearing only bad news, so the prospect of good news was different. The good news was this: His foot wasn’t broken all the way through. He would be able to play this season.
Thorpe is hoping the time has come. He watched from the sideline while UNC beat Liberty in the first game – after a sluggish first half Thorpe delivered a halftime speech his teammates described as inspiring – and did the same two Saturdays ago when UNC beat San Diego State.
At last, he returned to practice last week and was so giddy he made the kind of proclamation that might have bugged his coach, Larry Fedora, who likes to keep secret the status of injured players.
“I don’t know what coach Fedora has for us to say,” Thorpe said, smiling, “but I know personally, I have every intention of playing against ECU. I told the staff that, and that’s my goal.
“So hopefully that will be (attainable).”
The good news Thorpe received from Anderson is that he would be able to play – if not against ECU on Saturday then likely not long after. The bad news from Anderson, who has treated a range of high-profile athletes, including Derek Jeter, was this: Thorpe is likely to break his foot again.
And again. And again.
Thorpe said Anderson told him, “You’re probably going to break your foot again at least three times.”
“And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s encouraging,’ ” Thorpe said.
Thorpe said Anderson told him injuries would cease only if he stopped playing football.
“But it’s not something that is ever career-ending or anything like that,” Thorpe said. “It’s just something that’s annoying.”
Amid all the broken bones, Thorpe stayed healthy enough to play in 12 games a season ago. He caught 24 passes, two of them touchdowns, and averaged 21.2 yards on kickoff returns.
He entered the preseason hoping to play a more significant role in the offense, and hoping, too, to recapture a little of what made him such an elusive kick returner his freshman season. Then, in 2011, he averaged 26.7 yards per return and took one back for a touchdown.
There was that hope of becoming that player again. The coaches were hopeful, too, that Thorpe could stretch out defenses, that he could beat opposing defensive backs down the field and catch long passes.
But then another broken foot. And another trip to a surgeon. And more rehabilitation.
“It’s just amazing that T.J.’s just strong as he is mentally and physically,” Gunter Brewer, the Tar Heels’ receivers coach, said last week. “But mentally, it takes a guy with a big heart and the capability to overcome what he’s been able to overcome.”
Before last week, Thorpe, who was a highly regarded prospect during his days at Jordan High in Durham, hadn’t gone through a full practice since the first day of the preseason. He said it felt like “a pretty big amount of time” since he’d played.
Thorpe has had to work his way back slowly. After the injury, he felt heavy and out of shape, “as big as I’ve ever been,” he said.
So there has been an adjustment, Thorpe said, once again. He’s not afraid of what the doctor told him – that breaking his foot again, at least three more times, is inevitable. He said hearing that, at first, was “mind blowing.”
But then he got a hold of the thought and put it away. He has tried to focus on his return.
“At this point, it’s really just out of my hands,” he said. “... If it’s going to break again, it’s going to break again. If not, then I guess I’ll just keep playing.”