Terps’ Likely fo­cuses on re­hab, his ‘bright fu­ture’

In­jury won’t keep him from pur­su­ing ca­reer in NFL

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Don Markus

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.

CODY JAMES/MARY­LAND ATH­LET­ICS

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.

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