He had been tackled hard on the previous play and didn’t want to feel pain again, so as a young Dexter McDougle sprinted toward the end zone and saw the opposing players chugging behind him, he wheeled around and threw them the football. It was the first organized football game he ever played, and the prospect of absorbing one more blow was too much to bear. Later, he approached his father and insisted on quitting.
“You don’t quit,” replied his father, also named Dexter. “We’re McDougles. We don’t quit.”
McDougle marveled at this story on a recent afternoon. How would his life have changed if his father agreed? Would he still be here, preparing for this weekend’s NFL combine after graduating from the University of Maryland? Would he even be playing football at all?
“Then you get the what-ifs,” the cornerback said, working into a deep sigh as his memory migrated to the present. “It just sucks talking about it, when I think about the injury. But it’s all good. It happened. I’m bouncing back. That’s for sure. And I’m ready. Trust me. I’m ready.”
McDougle had developed into a stable contributor for Maryland, starting 24 straight games. Big things were planned for his final season. All-conference, definitely. All-American, maybe. An invitation to the Senior Bowl and the NFL draft, too.
Through two games, it looked attainable. He was intercepting passes and shutting down receivers, accumulating highlights he hoped would attract interest from NFL teams. Then, on Sept. 14 at Connecticut, everything changed.
It was the hardest he ever tried to hit someone. He aimed low and launched before the Huskies tight end had gained momentum. It felt like tackling a statue. Later, doctors called it a freak accident. Injuries like that, they said, rarely happened in football. They were more common in car crashes.
At first, McDougle thought his right shoulder was dislocated. But after 30 minutes of jarring pain, of being stabilized while a doctor tried to shove the shoulder back into place, an X-ray revealed the worst. He had fractured his scapula, a triangular bone also known as the shoulder blade. It was a season-ending injury, McDougle was told, requiring surgery. His college career was over.
“It was heartbreaking,” Terps Coach Randy Edsall said.
Three months in a sling took its toll. He had once broken his right hand at Stafford High School, so he knew how to handle simple tasks like brushing his teeth, picking up forks and showering. But there were sleepless nights. Practices missed for treatment. The nagging feeling of separation. The season was still young, and he should have been there, making tackles and intercepting passes with his friends.
So McDougle stuck around. He attended position meetings to instruct the young cornerbacks tasked with replacing him. He patrolled stretching lines on game day, offering words of encouragement, and sat in the coaches’ booth to lend advice. At the end-of-season banquet, Edsall presented him with the inaugural Dexter McDougle Ultimate Team Player Award.
“I’ve seen a lot of guys go and just not do anything, stay away, have the attitude of woe-is-me,” Edsall said. “He was completely the opposite.”
One afternoon in January, McDougle was playing video games in his living room with linebacker Alex Twine. It was another teammate’s birthday, and McDougle was e-mailing pictures to himself to create a photo collage. He noticed one unopened message, addressed from the NFL. He clicked on it. “Congratulations,” it read. “You have been invited to the 2014 NFL scouting combine.”
This weekend, McDougle will fly to Indianapolis with a plan, though that plan hasn’t yet been formed. He will definitely interview and answer questions about the injury but isn’t sure how much physical activity will be done. Only after the invitation did McDougle start sprinting again. Trainers still haven’t allowed him to bench press or power clean. But the strength is coming back. The range of motion has returned. He spends most days training at Gossett Team House or Byrd Stadium, thinking about the games yet to come.
Yet memories of the injury linger. He remembered being carted off the field and hearing jeers from the Connecticut student section. “Get off the field,” someone yelled, maybe because McDougle had already intercepted two passes and returned one for a touchdown. But McDougle couldn’t bear to seem weak, even though the bone propping his shoulder in place was already cracked. So before he approached the tunnel, before the long road to recovery began, he looked up into the stands and blew those students a kiss.