On March 11 — only 5½ weeks before the NFL draft — I ruptured my Achilles.
It happened in front of 50 pro scouts at the University of Washington’s pro day, on the last play of defensive drills.
Unfortunately, that’s how life works sometimes.
I was doing this drill where I’d backpedal until a coach yelled, “Break!” That was the cue for me to cut diagonally upfield to follow an imaginary receiver. I had done this thousands of times in practice, and to that point I was feeling real good about how quickly I was getting out of my breaks.
I lined up one last time, started backpedaling, heard the coach yell “Break!” and turned to my right. I had only taken about a step and a half when suddenly it felt like a ball had hit my ankle.
In an instant, a bunch of questions flashed through my head. Why was someone throwing at my foot? Was it to try to distract me to see how I’d react? Had someone missed their target and accidentally thrown into our drill?
As I was tumbling to the ground, my eyes darted to the space around me.
I sat up and instinctively held my calf. I looked straight ahead at the ground.
Budda Baker, one of my best friends, came to help me up. He sort of lifted me up and I tried to take a step, but I couldn’t move. Then Coach Pete came up to me. When he saw that I couldn’t move my left ankle, his faced showed everything. This was serious.
As my coaches helped me off the field, I didn’t wince or show any pain. But it wasn’t an act. I legit didn’t feel pain. Nothing actually hurt. For real.
That’s kinda when I knew it was bad.
On March 21, I had surgery to repair my Achilles. The doctors told me I would be running again in four months.
When I woke up after the surgery, I wasn’t scared or angry. I was focused. And since that moment, I’ve realized something: Nothing’s gonna stop me now.
And you know what?
I’mma come back as a monster.
Out of all the things that Coach Pete taught me in my three years at Washington, there’s one simple saying stands out as the most significant:
“Control what you can control.”
I feel like it’s pretty appropriate at this point in my life. There’s no use in wondering why this happened to me — at seemingly the worst possible time. The only way I’ll be a better football player than I was before the injury is by putting in a crazy amount of work, which I’m doing.
Now before y’all roll your eyes because you’ve heard that before, let me remind you that Coach Pete also taught me how important it is to let my game do the talking.
Coming out of high school, I received scholarship offers from three Pac-12 programs: Colorado, Utah and Washington. Coming from Los Angeles, I wanted to prove to USC and UCLA that they had been straight up silly to pass on me. Throughout my time at Washington, I think I did that. If I hadn’t played with that chip on my shoulder, I know for a fact that I would never have started 39 straight games, been named All-Pac-12 two straight years or been one of the guys to help bring back that Dawg mentality from the ’90s. The Huskies believed in me, and I believed in them. All I had to do was put the work in to become the player I wanted to be.
During player evals at the end of my freshman season, Coach Pete and Coach Lake, one of our defensive assistants, challenged me to take my game to the next level. I had the skill set to compete against some of the best receivers in the country, they said, but I could become an elite player if I began studying film.
From that point forward I spent more time in the film room than in my dorm room — for real.
Man, I started watching so much film that Darren Gardenhire, one of my teammates, nicknamed me “Sidney Lake,” which was a play on Coach Lake’s last name. For a while I just shook my head every time “G-Man” called me that. Before I knew it, I was known to the entire team as Sidney Lake, which made me look like the coach’s pet. Like, C’mon, man. You can’t be calling me the coach’s last name! We had a bunch of dudes on the team who thought they were comedians.
Goons, all of ’em.
O.K., truthfully, I did take it as a compliment. And, come to think of it, Sidney Lake has a nice ring to it. I guess it meant I was doing something right. All of the film I was studying was paying off on the field. I could anticipate plays better. My football IQ was at a place it had never been. Every Saturday, I was in the mind of the opposing offense in a way that I had never been before.
One particular moment stands out.
When I was a sophomore, we went into the Coliseum to take on the 17th-ranked Trojans. Every game against USC is important, but this time seemed especially significant because it was toward the beginning of the season. We wanted to make a statement.
About midway through the first quarter, this happened:
The presnap formation looked familiar. It was third-and-15, and I had done enough studying to know that, in these situations, the Trojans usually tried to see what they could get by just dumping the ball off to one of their backs. When their receiver motioned over to the strong side, I figured he was getting out of the way so that the offensive linemen could run downfield and set up some blocks.
When the center finally snapped the ball to the QB and the linemen jumped out of their three-point stances, I knew what was coming.
This is it, I thought. This is the screen.
Their running back ran toward the line of scrimmage and turned back for the ball. The QB pump-faked to his receiver in motion, then turned to his right and looked for the back.
I read it perfectly.
By that point, all the hard work was over and instinct kicked in. I ran past a blocker, jumped the passing lane, tipped the ball to myself and then hauled it in.
You know, just as I had envisioned it going in the film room.
Talking about that play reminds me of what Chris Harris Jr. of the Denver Broncos said in his Players’ Tribune article last October. He said that 80% of interceptions start in bed or in a recliner or in a dark room. Was I pumped that I picked off the team that had once overlooked me during recruiting? One hundred percent. But the thing I was most proud of was how amped my teammates were after the pick. I got addicted to that feeling. And throughout the rest of my time in a Huskies uniform, I made it my No. 1 goal to put my teammates in a better position to succeed, just like I had in that game against USC.
If I wanted to be an elite player, I had to be productive Monday through Friday, not just on Saturday. I think the same logic applies to my situation right now.
And that’s why I’m working every damn day to be one of the best cornerbacks in the draft.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve had a chance to reflect on my time at the University of Washington and how special it was. (Trust me, you get a lot of time to think when you’re rehabbing.)
I think one moment from my college career is pretty emblematic of how much I loved this place: After losing to Alabama on New Year’s Eve in the Peach Bowl, I sat in the locker room and cried.
But I didn’t just cry. I bawled my eyes out. Legit. And that just doesn’t happen. Any of my friends can tell you — heck, my momma can tell you! — I do not cry. Like at all. But after that game, I couldn’t hold it in. Something came over me. It was the end of the road for a great team.
Kevin Liles/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images
I’m going to miss y’all so much. I’m so proud of how much we accomplished in such a short amount of time. And to me, one thing really proves why my heart is never going to be that far away from all my Huskies — those who came before me and those who have yet to put on the purple and white.
After my Achilles injury, I received texts from guys like Travell Dixon, a former Dawg who now plays for the Panthers in the NFL, from a couple of freshmen players who I had mentored and from friends I had made while working on group projects in class. Along the way, Coach Pete and his entire staff have also kept checking in on my rehab.
I knew that U-Dub was a family, but man … the outpouring of support from all over has meant so much to me.
And I have some good news report: Two weeks ago, the doctors took off my cast. I’m starting to get my range of motion back, and to feel more like myself. So don’t count me out just yet, fam. I’m still grinding.
You know, just the way I was taught as a Husky.
In the wise words of Coach Pete, I’m just controlling what I can control. And right now, for me, that’s getting healthy so I can prove why I’m still the top corner in this year’s draft. No little injury is gonna knock me down for long.
Because if you draft me, you’re drafting more than just an athlete. A whole lot more. You aren’t just drafting Sidney Jones … you’re drafting Sidney Lake, too.
You don’t think so?