One year after devastating injury, former Terrapin Nolan Carroll poised to make the Miami Dolphins

Rookie defensive back Nolan Carroll,left, makes a tackle in a preseason game against Dallas.
Rookie defensive back Nolan Carroll,left, makes a tackle in a preseason game against Dallas. (Getty Images)
By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 4, 2010; 11:59 PM

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.

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