Terps’ Likely focuses on rehab, his ‘bright future’
Injury won’t keep him from pursuing career in NFL
COLLEGE PARK — The dreams began almost immediately.
In them, Will Likely III was running, fast and always effortlessly, as he did for more than three seasons on the Maryland football team. The dreams would each end the same way — abruptly. Likely would wake up in a darkened room, his right knee still hurting, his college career still over.
“For about two weeks straight, every day I dreamed about either running or just playing football,” Likely said. “It was crazy, like the first time it happened, it
just felt like weird. I woke up and I tried to move. I looked at my leg and it was like, ‘I can’t even move.’ ”
The dreams happened nearly from the day Likely left Maryland Stadium in a brace Oct. 15 after a 31-10 loss to Minnesota, hoping the pain would subside and he would be able to return in a few weeks.
Deep down, Likely feared his season was over.
A few days later, an MRI confirmed what Likely figured after he came to the sideline: a torn ACL.
Likely will return to the field today as one of 22 players Maryland will honor on senior day before its regular season finale against Rutgers. Likely’s career, which included twice being named an All-Big Ten Conference cornerback and once an All-America return specialist, as well as setting a host of team records, will be celebrated.
“It’s going to be fun,” said Likely, who expects several family members to make the trip from Belle Glade, Fla. “Obviously I want to play, but other than that, it’s going to be fun to see how far I made it from a little kid in a park back home never knowing that he was going to be at Maryland. It’s a blessing. I’m more proud for that.”
But when the pregame ceremony ends, Likely will retreat to the sideline to watch his team play. He once was seemingly guaranteed to hear his name called in next year’s NFL draft, but the future is suddenly clouded.
Likely still believes he will be playing in the NFL, possibly as soon as next season.
“That’s going to come. Right now it’s just rehabbing and getting back right,” he said of his NFL career. “Once I get there, once it happens, there’s no doubt in my mind what’s going to happen. Right now it’s just trying to get back as healthy as possible.”
After the injury occurred when he was tackled following a muffed fair catch, Likely acknowledged, the transition from star player to patient to rehabilitation warrior was difficult.
“When I first hurt it, I basically knew like the first day after like an hour of moping around, it was on to the next step,” he said, talking to reporters in his first interview since the injury occurred. “Ever since then, I never thought of anything, except what’s next. That’s the most exciting part, trying to just work.”
First-year Maryland coach DJ Durkin said it is still difficult to talk about Likely’s injury.
“That’s a hard one for me to talk about without me getting emotional about it, to be honest with you,” Durkin said. “Not a finer young man and a competitor, just a guy that’s about all the right things, obviously a great player as well. It’s tough to see him in here every day, rehabbing every day and getting his knee ready. It tears your guts out when you see him. It just does.”
As is his nature, Likely would rather look at those who came back from the same knee injury.
Likely uses such ACL success stories as Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller as motivation.
“Seeing that they had their best [year] the year after they tore their ACL, it’s just a little bit [of ] motivation,” Likely said.
Likely also heard almost immediately after the injury happened from two of his former high school teammates at Glades Central who are now in the NFL, Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin and San Diego Chargers return specialist Travis Benjamin.
“They both had ACL tears, and they reached out when they first heard about [mine] and just gave me the process of what it will take,” Likely said. “It’s definitely been true so far.”
During the week leading up to today’s game, Likely’s teammates showed a montage of his career highlights, many from when he was a sophomore and was tied for the Big Ten lead with six interceptions and led the league in interception return yards with 170, including two for touchdowns. It motivated Likely. “It definitely drives me to want to move and be better than the player that I was before,” he said. “It will be a new version of Will Likely.”
The recovery time from ACL surgery to being able to participate in contact drills for college or professional football is typically 71⁄ to 10 months. Likely said he has been informed by his doctor and physical therapists that he is about “21⁄ weeks” ahead of schedule.
“Just being patient with the process, not trying to rush back or anything, just make sure I’m 100 percent,” he said. “We’ve got a great training staff. They’ve actually restricted me from doing a lot of stuff because they know I try to push myself so hard. It’s challenging because it’s a process, and I have to keep reminding myself of that.”
Asked whether he has ever secondguessed his decision to return for his senior year when he might have been drafted into the NFL, Likely is pragmatic, offering that the same injury could have happened had he turned pro.
“I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason,” he said. “Who knows? I could have torn it in the NFL this year. That’s the game we play. I know what comes with it. I’m definitely excited and by the time I come back, I know I’ll be 10 times stronger than I was before and be a better football player. It’ll all turn out for the best.”
Rehab has become another form of two-a-days for Likely. He said he treats the sessions, which begin at 9 a.m. and end around 5 or 6 p.m., “like a job.” The exercises, geared toward helping Likely recover his strength and range of motion, can be tedious and difficult.
While Durkin and defensive coordinator Andy Buh said Likely has remained one of the team’s leaders, his rehab schedule often prevents him from mentoring the team’s young secondary.
But before the team left for last week’s game at then-No. 18 Nebraska — a 28-7 loss in which the Terps played some of their best defense since Likely was hurt — Likely delivered a stirring speech about how fortunate they are to be going to college and playing football.
“That’s one of those things where I just wanted to let the team know, it’s human nature that you take things for granted, like the small things,” Likely said. “Those are still my peers, and that’s still my team and my teammates. I wanted to share the inside from a person they’ve been around each and every day that you can be playing and the next day you can barely move your leg.”
Said Durkin: “Will’s got a bright future ahead of him. I totally believe he has football in his career ahead of him. I also believe that whatever he does in life he’ll be successful.”
Likely, who no longer has the dreams that started after his injury, said he is grateful to have his health and, he firmly still believes, a future in the NFL.
“I’ve learned a lot throughout a short break [from playing football], people helping me to refocus and work on my body more and work on all the little stuff. Be thankful for the game,” he said.
Maryland’s Will Likely is rehabilitating his knee after surgery from a torn ACL he suffered Oct. 15. Likely firmly believes he’ll still have a career in the NFL.