When you look at Justyn Ross, he seems okay. As Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said on Monday, “He can run, jump, do backflips, dunk a basketball. He looks like he has always looked.”
But right now, Ross can’t play football.
As Swinney reported, Ross will have surgery on Friday and will not play during the upcoming 2020 season. After undergoing an X-ray this spring that looked at his back and spine following an injury in March, Ross learned he has a congenital fusion, which is something he was born with. The doctors also discovered he had a bulging disk, which only aggravated the situation.
Ross experienced stinger-like symptoms and numbness after catching a pass and being hit during practice. He was slow to get up and ended up missing the remaining few practices of the spring.
Clemson’s top returning receiver from a year ago, will have surgery in Pittsburgh on Friday. One of the country’s top neurosurgeons, Dr. David Okonkwo, who is the neurosurgeon for the Pittsburgh Steelers, will perform the procedure.
“The number one thing is that he is safe to be able to play football,” Swinney said.
Though Dr. Okonkwo and his team will do everything thing they can to help Ross get back on the football field, Swinney says there is no guarantee.
“Certainly, very hopeful that this surgery will go well, and it will take him out of harms way from risk of paralysis or anything like that,” the Clemson coach said. “Hopefully, by January, he is doing great and he has a decision to make. Does he try to go take his shot at the [NFL] combine and perform well there and have a chance to keep playing at the next level or does he want to come back and play at Clemson another year and go from there.”
This is not the first time Clemson has had to deal with a player returning from a serious neck or spin surgery. In 2015, former wide receiver Mike Williams broke his neck in the first game of the season when he caught a touchdown pass against Wofford and slammed head-first into the goal post in the east end zone of Memorial Stadium.
Williams missed the rest of the 2015 season and sat out practice the following spring to continue his rehabilitation and get his neck stronger. In 2016, he returned to the field and had an All-American season. Williams led the Tigers with 98 receptions, the second-best figure in Clemson history, as well as leading the team with 1,361 yards and 11 touchdown receptions. He made several big-time catches to help Clemson beat Alabama in the national championship game.
The Clemson receiver went on to become the No. 7 overall pick by the Los Angeles Chargers in the 2017 NFL Draft and is having a very productive NFL career. In three seasons with the Chargers, Williams has grabbed 103 passes for 1,760 yards and 12 touchdowns. Last year, he caught 49 passes for 1,001 yards and averaged 20.4 yards per catch.
“When Mike Williams had his injury, there was a lot we did not know. There were a lot of unknowns,” Swinney said. “Different injury, but similar circumstances. He had to miss a year and he ended up coming back and the rest is history for him. Hopefully, that will be the case for Justyn, as far as a great recovery.”
Dr. Okonkwo thinks there is a good path for Ross to play football, again, and is excited about the challenge ahead of seeing that happen. But, as Swinney said, there are no guarantees.
However, Swinney reports Ross in is a good place and has surrounded himself with family and friends who are helping him get through this both emotionally and mentally.
“At first, in the very beginning, it was a hard thing for all of us to kind of get our arms around,” Swinney said. “But his mom is amazing. He has a wonderful support system around him. Justyn is in a great place. Mentally, he is ready to do what he needs to do to give himself the best chance to play football again.”
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