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August 25, 2011

Blaine Irby's story is a miracle comeback

Blaine Irby was sitting in a tight ends meeting in December of 2009 as the guy who could no longer play football, still supporting his teammates as they prepared for the BCS national title game against Alabama.

Irby was the guy who couldn't even walk without assistance, when "the twitch" happened.

For more than a year, he'd been through hell, starting with the moment his right knee was bent completely backward after a hit from a Rice player who dove at his legs. There was the pain he saw in his mother's eyes after the injury. The tears flowed down both of their faces that night because they knew how serious the injury was.

LESS THAN 5 PERCENT CHANCE: Doctors would give Irby a less than 5 percent chance of ever walking normally because of all the nerve damage that occurred. Right after the injury, Texas football trainer Kenny Boyd feared Irby's leg might need to be amputated if the blood circulation couldn't be improved. Irby was rushed to the emergency room.

Over the course of the next year, there were three surgeries - one in Austin to completely reconstruct the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments, and two more in Houston to cut away scar tissue in hopes of regenerating the nerves in his right leg.

"In our heart of hearts, we knew it was a low percentage," Boyd said.

There were countless hours in the training room and weight room, trying to get his right foot to work again, to flex again, to simply move again. For weeks and months it just dangled at the end of his leg like a dead fish at the end of a trot line.

Every night, before Irby would go to bed, he'd flex his left foot 100 times while attempting to flex his right foot - always envisioning his right foot would move. But it never did.

Until that tight ends meeting.

THE TWITCH: Irby saw his right foot flex a half inch while tight ends coach Bruce Chambers laid out the game plan for the BCS national title game. All Irby could think to do was raise his hand and ask Chambers if he could be excused to go to the bathroom, and then made a beeline for Boyd's office.

"You could finally see progress," Boyd said of Irby's arrival in his office. "But there's a long way to go from feeling a twitch to blocking a defensive end. We just wanted him to be able to walk normally again."

Added friend and teammate Blake Gideon, "He had this smile on his face, like he had some secret. Like a seventh grade kid."

NO LOSING FAITH: Irby wanted to play again. And even though there were down days, he never lost sight of his goal.

"When an athlete has an injury like this, they tend to look at it as a hiatus to their athletic career or as a termination, and there's a grieving process," said Jesse Ackerman, one of Irby's physical therapists. "Blaine never looked at it that way. He said, 'I'm going to come back.'"

There was a critical decision in the process of Irby's comeback. When he went to Houston to visit with neurosurgeon Rahul Nath in early 2009, Irby had options.

Nath was the same doctor who performed the nearly identical miracle of bringing former Texas offensive lineman Tony Hills' nerves back to life after a horrific high school knee injury that caused Hills to sit out of football a year before enrolling at Texas.

STRENGTH FROM TONY HILLS: Irby's options were to do nothing. He could have a "salvage procedure" aimed at lifting his foot. The salvage procedure would have ended any thought of him ever playing again.

Or he could have some scar tissue removed and see if it helped to regenerate his deadened nerves.

Irby opted to have the scar tissue removed. It was the same surgery Hills had after a similar situation that included drop foot.

"Tony was great during all this," Irby said. "He told me to be patient, that it was a long road. Now, I see him killing it for the Pittsburgh Steelers. It's encouraging."

There were hours in the weight room. Hours in the training room.

GOING THROUGH HELL: "When it progressed to where we got him in the weight room, he would probably describe it as hell," Ackerman said. "Because we're usually targeting the weak point, and attacking those areas."

Jeff Madden, UT's football strength and conditioning coach at the time of the injury, said, "It was like teaching a kid how to walk again. But he was up for the challenge. He has a special spirit."

There were several days in which everything was a struggle, including the fact that he went more than a year with no way to move his right foot.

Ackerman said, "I would call him out, and he responded great to it. When we started in the weight room, I said, 'I'm going to get you stronger than you've ever been in your life.'"

BIGGER AND STRONGER: And he did. Irby went from 220 to 240.

"Every area of his body that he could get stronger while he was injured he made stronger," Chambers said.

By late 2010, Irby was walking around and telling people he would play football again. Mack Brown wasn't so sure.

"I didn't want him walking like I do at age 60," said Brown, who has had a knee replacement. "I wanted him to be able to play with his kids one day. I didn't think he would be emotionally ready, even if he was physically ready."

To help ensure Irby was ready, coaches did little things like send in the same play call in the spring - "27 Naked Ohio" - that Irby was injured on against Rice back in 2008.

"After the play, Blaine looked at me and said, 'Thanks Coach,'" Chambers said.

BACK ON THE FOOTBALL FIELD: Irby wasn't allowed to be tackled during the spring. But Boyd's staff cleared Irby for contact in fall camp, which began Aug. 5. The first time Irby caught a pass in fall camp and teammates could hit him, "it was like the Red Sea parting," said senior safety Blake Gideon. "No one wanted to hit him."

But Irby became irritated at his teammates for backing off. And the coaches said if Irby was going to play, he had to be hit. The first blow came from defensive back Adrian Phillips, and Irby fumbled the ball.

"We were like, 'Just get up,'" Gideon said.

"I was mad I dropped the ball," Irby said.

Before long, Irby was catching the ball and lowering his shoulder into tacklers.

"He's gotten his share of licks now," Gideon said.

Chambers also had him start blocking the likes of Texas DE Alex Okafor.

"I knew if he could block Okafor, there wouldn't be too many defensive ends in the country he couldn't block," Chambers said. "And Blaine's done a good job."

Still, Mack Brown has tried to make sure Irby is making the right decision.

"I worry every time I see Blaine out there," Mack Brown said. "I would not play if I was him. I told that to Jordan (Shipley) after his two knee injuries. I told that to Bo (Scaife) after his knee injuries. And now both are in the NFL.

"I got a text message from Bo the other day saying, 'I'm sure glad I didn't listen to you.'"

IGNORING COACH BROWN'S ADVICE: Brown said he kept asking Irby after each practice of fall camp how his right knee was feeling.

"Every day he'd say he's fine. I think he probably got to the point where he just thought, 'Will you please shut up? I'm fine.' So the last four to five days, it's been quiet. I've moved on."

Irby's miraculous story is going back on the football field Sept. 3 against the very team that took Irby's leg out.

Asked if he might find himself flashing back to the Rice game three years ago when he takes the field Sept. 3 against the Owls, Irby said, "I've pushed past that. In my heart, I believe 100 percent that I'm ready."

Now, Irby comes back to an offense under Bryan Harsin and Major Applewhite that makes the tight end a featured player, whether it's running or passing. Irby is a man of faith and isn't afraid to acknowledge that aspect of his life, and the power it's had in his comeback.

'IT'S DEFINITELY A MIRACLE'

Irby said, "It's definitely a miracle. I think God had something to do with this. I know he did. He put me through this for a reason, and I wouldn't change anything. I believe 100 percent in my heart I'm ready."

Added Boyd, "I think there was some bigger assistance than we realize than just surgery to clean up scar tissue or modalities to stimulate the nerves in the knee."

Irby has had a great training camp. He and D.J. Grant have been the most consistent playmakers at tight end.

"I've never seen a story like it," said Bennie Wylie, UT's new strength and conditioning coach for football. "When a guy is not supposed to walk again to where he's out there catching some pretty good balls right now.

"This is why we coach," Wylie said. "Because we get to see these miracle stories."

LIFE CHANGING OUTLOOK: Irby even changed his major to kinesiology because he now has an interest in possibly becoming a physical therapist. He also started letting his hair grow last April after he was able to run again and started thinking about playing football.

His mane now flows down to his shoulders. He grew up a huge fan of Pat Tillman, a former Arizona State and Arizona Cardinal star who left a big-money contract in the NFL to join the military and fight terrorism after Sept. 11, 2001, and later lost his life. Irby said he has no plans to cut his hair currently.

"It's a tribute to Pat," Irby said.

All the coaches say Irby has picked up where he left off before his horrific injury in 2008 and all the rehab and surgeries that finally led to "the twitch." The coaches talk about what a strong leader Irby has become.

"I've matured," Irby said. "And I'll bring more passion to the game this time around because I know it can end like that."

Asked what he's most looking forward to, Irby said, "Just being in that tunnel with the guys with that nervous anticipation. I've missed that. I've missed that a lot."



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