Dolphins defensive back knows comeback route

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 5, 2010; D3

IN DAVIE, FLA. With the bone in his lower right leg bulging grotesquely, University of Maryland defensive back Nolan Carroll was placed on a stretcher, lifted into an ambulance and rushed out of Byrd Stadium during the fourth quarter of the Terrapins' second game last September, against James Madison.

Within hours, he underwent emergency surgery. For the next three months, Carroll could do little more than limp to an exercise cycle and pedal it. In December, he could not run a single step forward.

Yet two weeks ago, he dashed 36 yards on a kickoff return in a preseason game for the Miami Dolphins. He made five tackles and handled the team's kickoff return duties in the final two preseason games. About the only reminder of last year's devastating season-ending injury is a knotty scar that juts down from under his kneecap.

Drafted in the fifth round of the April draft, Carroll has been among Miami's most promising rookies. He is expected to play a significant role this season, contributing as a kick returner and defensive back in nickel packages.

"I'm just focused on what I need to do," he said moments after a recent practice, beads of sweat rolling off of his forehead. "I'm trying to do my job, and not step on anybody's toes . . . . You have to go out there and think you are going to get better every day."

For a while, getting better meant taking individual steps. A stride to the side. Then a bound. Then a longer one. On Sept. 12, the day the Dolphins open the regular season against the Buffalo Bills, Carroll will celebrate the one-year anniversary of the insertion of a steel rod in his lower right leg by, basically, forgetting it's even there.

"Nolan went to work," said Chip Smith, the well-known Atlanta-based trainer who managed Carroll's rehabilitation "I watched him transform before my very eyes. . . . He might have winced, but he never - not one time - said, 'It hurts,' or 'I can't do that,' or 'I have to stop.'"

Those weren't the kinds of phrases tossed around liberally - or even tolerated - at the Carroll household during Carroll's childhood in Green Cove Spring, Fla., a small town outside of Jacksonville. A lifetime of lessons from his parents, particularly his mother, offered something of a how-to manual on getting back on his feet.

A unique upbringing

Around the time he jogged off the Dolphins' practice field on Aug. 24, State Rep. Jennifer Carroll (R) was hurrying out of her office across the state in Jacksonville, on her way to a speaking engagement at a local Rotary Club. That night, she would hop a flight to Tampa for a political rally. She ran unopposed in Florida's District 13 in Republican primaries that day; just over a week later, Rick Scott, the Republican candidate for governor in Florida, tabbed her as his running mate for lieutenant governor.

Carroll's father, meantime, found himself holed up doing high-security computer work for Fairfax-based ManTech International at Homestead Air Force Base, just 25 miles southwest of Miami, as his son's training camp wound down. The defensive back had no idea his father was working so close to Miami's practice fields. A U.S. military man for 27 years and a senior master sergeant in the Air Force, the elder Nolan Carroll kept his proximity under wraps so as not to distract his son.

"They're both strong in different ways," Nolan Carroll said. My dad "will let you grow up on your own, let you make your own mistakes. My mom is very hands on."

The elder Nolan Carroll gave up his Air Force career to follow his wife, then an aspiring Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy. The couple had three children, Nolan II, Nyckie and Necho, and the kids hammed it up in videos sent to their mother during her six-month deployments in Iceland, Panama and Spain.

Only recently, the younger Carroll said, has he come to understand what his mother went through as a young African American woman in a largely white, male-dominated field.

"She had to overcome stereotypes surrounding her," Nolan II said. "She kept fighting, and worked her way up. A couple years back, she started telling me more about her story."

Jennifer Carroll remembers that "many senior enlisted men did not like the fact that there were females in their Navy," but she had no intention of settling for the secretarial jobs then often doled out to women. So she became a jet mechanic. "I didn't believe it until I saw the pictures," admitted her husband, who met her after that career stint.

Held to a high standard

A year before she retired from the military in 1999, she developed an interest in politics. Four years later, she had become the first black female Republican elected to the Florida Legislature.

As it turned out, she had plenty of experience in laying down tough laws. The year before, she had refused to let her son play his freshman season of football because his grades did not meet her standards.

"It was made crystal clear to me what I had to do," Nolan II said. "Sometimes I'd set my foot outside the line and test it a little bit, but I learned from it."

She took her children with her to feed the homeless, clean trash off of streets, distribute clothing to the poor. She wanted, she said, to make sure they understood what she did while at work, and also to gain "first-hand experience in how it feels to help somebody else."

"It sets a high standard," Nolan Carroll said. "Not just for me, but for my sister and brother and also my dad. We know when we stand out there, we have to uphold her name and do what we're told. I don't want to do anything to tarnish her name."

Lately, Carroll's done a fine job of honoring it.

Carroll trained with Smith in Atlanta six to eight hours a day from December to mid-March, shuttling from a grass field to a treatment table to a weight room. "He had a small circle he traveled in for at least a month," Smith said. When Carroll went back to College Park for a "pro day" workout in March, he stunned onlookers by clocking an unofficial 4.41 seconds in the 40-yard dash and displaying a 37.5-inch vertical jump.

"The weird thing about it was, I was confident the whole time," Carroll said. "I knew somebody would give me a chance."

Carroll, though, had missed the NFL's winter combine, the so-called job fair for prospective players, and the Dolphins had major reservations about burning a draft choice on an athlete who had barely played as a senior. Those worries were assuaged, Coach Tony Sparano said last week, when Miami flew Carroll out to the team's training facility earlier this year.

"We could pick his brain and see what kind of kid he was, his mental approach to the game, those kinds of things," Sparano said. "That helped us in the evaluation process."

Smith speculated the Dolphins would be richly rewarded for taking a risk on Carroll.

"He's one of the finest young men I've ever had the opportunity to work with, and I've put 1,000 players in the NFL over the last 20 years," Smith said. "It's a wonderful story."

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