Southerland, Georgia’s senior fullback, was six months removed from surgery to correct a broken foot, and he was on his way to what he thought would be his final check-up before being cleared for full action.
The foot “felt great,” Southerland said. “I thought I was about to be out there doing everything.”
He was one CAT scan away.
“The doctor walked in with this look on his face,” Southerland said. “I said, ‘What’s up?’ He said, ‘It’s not good.’ I said, ‘What do you mean it’s not good?’ I was dumbfounded. I didn’t know what to say.
“I went from thinking I’m ready to be back to being on the bottom again.”
Southerland had somehow suffered a fracture in the same bone, but not in the same spot that was originally hurt. Doctors were stumped. Southerland, who was told he did all his rehab exactly right, was devastated.
“There are four specialists, and none of them had really seen anything like it,” Southerland said. “You can’t really ask why it happened, you just have to move on.”
That’s Southerland’s attitude now. It was not then. He had surgery two days after that doctor’s visit. He was in the hospital for three days after that.
“I was pretty low for a good week, week and a half,” he said.
Imagine how Mark Richt and Mike Bobo felt. Southerland has been an offensive rock for the Bulldogs for the past two years. His career totals – 81 carries for 170 yards and 33 catches for 273 yards – don’t show his true value.
That’s better measured by the 2006 season when Southerland became the first fullback to lead the team in scoring since Theron Sapp did it in 1957 by scoring 10 touchdowns, eight on the ground and two through the air. Southerland has 21 touchdowns for his career.
Southerland came to Athens from Greater Atlanta Christian where he was a Class AA All-state selection and one of the most highly sought-after fullbacks in the country. Not only did Southerland rush for 852 yards and 15 touchdowns as a senior in high school, he also had 130 tackles, including 13 for a loss. And, oh, by the way, finished second in the state in the 110-meter hurdles, not an easy feat for a 6-foot guy weighing more than 200 pounds.
Southerland made an impact immediately in Athens, taking over the starting role as a freshman and starting seven games after an injury to Des Williams.
Williams would never return to that role, nor would anyone challenge Southerland’s hold on the job. He played in all 13 games as a sophomore – starting 11. Last season, he had a career-high 11 starts in 13 games, and he was poised for another workhorse year this season in an offense that could be one of the country’s best.
The thought of delaying the start of that season for more than a month was more than Southerland could stand for about 10 days, but he began to feel better, he said, as soon as he could get out of bed and start walking on crutches.
From that point, it’s been a methodical process to work his body and his mind back in shape. It wasn’t until the second week of August when Southerland was able to get out of a walking boot and start wearing shoes on both feet again.
Even before the walking boot came off, Southerland was working out in the pool with a waterproof cast. Despite not being able to practice, Southerland reported to camp in August as part of Georgia’s official 105-man roster. He participated in every meeting and team function other than practice throughout fall camp.
He spent many days watching practice from a distance while riding a stationary bike. A sure sign of his boredom is how excited he was to be cleared just to ride the stationary bike.
“That was a really nice addition to get some really good cardio,” he said.
Doctors told Southerland he couldn’t stand and watch an entire practice due to the stress on his foot, so he usually skipped the middle half hour of practice to get extra weight room work. While his lower body waited impatiently to get back to work, Southerland focused his energy on his upper body.
Last summer, his bench press max was 435 pounds. By the time fall camp ended this year, he was regularly benching 445 pounds three times.
“I’ve had plenty of time to work on my upper body,” he quipped.
Harder even than the physical rehab has been the patience required. Southerland wondered to himself after his first setback if he had somehow botched his first attempt at rehab.
“They said I did everything right the first time,” he said. “Some things you just can’t control … so the things you can control you want to be very careful with.”
He certainly was that this fall.
“First and foremost, I have to heal up not just for football this season, but heal up for the next level of football and also just for life,” he said. “In 15-20 years from now I don’t want miss out on going outside and playing with the kids because I have a lame foot.
“It’s obvious if you go out too early anything can go wrong.”
So he waited … and waited … and waited. Southerland even began to look at the drudgery of two-a-days with envy.
“If I had a choice, I definitely wouldn’t miss camp, even thought it’s hard,” he said. “I wouldn’t be taking time off if I had a choice.”
Now, as the leaves turn orange and Georgia’s schedule turns ridiculous, Southerland is back.
The only silver lining for Southerland is that he may be fresher this year than he has been in his career. He plays a position as physical as any on the team, and, since the Bulldogs hope to play 14 games this year, it might be nice, he conceded to have a little less wear and tear on his body for the stretch run.
“Hopefully,” he said before his return to the field, “I can come back and bring some good energy and health for the team. If I can go out there fresh, maybe it’ll help.”