SEATTLE — In his first game at Husky Stadium last September, freshman Austin Joyner was on the field for the opening kickoff against Sacramento State. It promised to be a moment he would always remember.
Indeed it was, though not for the reason he expected.
With the ball in the air, Joyner raced downfield with other members of the University of Washington’s coverage team. As a blocker approached, Joyner planted his left leg to brace for contact.
“It wasn’t anything I hadn’t done before,” Joyner recalled earlier this week. “But with just that step, I felt a pop in my knee. It was something I’d never felt. … Being a football player, I tried to get up and walk on it, but when I put pressure on it I knew something was (wrong). I couldn’t just walk it off like usual.”
Joyner had suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, an injury that is the bane of many athletes, particularly football players. He underwent surgery a week later, with part of his patella tendon being taken to restructure a new ACL.
The good news, Joyner was expected to make a full recovery. The bad news, his season was over.
“It was terrible,” said Joyner, a 2015 graduate of Marysville Pilchuck High School. “That was my very first home game experience. It was the first play of the first game, and that’s what I’m left with.”
In the ensuing months, he experienced one of the most grueling and least exhilarating aspects of football — rehabilitation. The hours are long and the regimen is always strenuous, usually tedious and often painful. It takes a daily determination to persevere until the injury heals and football can be fun again.
“It started off rough,” Joyner admitted. “When it was still in season, I just had to watch everybody practicing and doing stuff. I’d never had an injury where I had to sit out for such a long period of time, and it builds up in you that you’re just sitting there watching every day.
“It starts to take a toll on you … and it got to the point where I was a little bit depressed. I wouldn’t say it was a deep depression or anything like that. I was just trying to stay focused on what I needed to do to come back.”
By the time the Huskies started spring practices, Joyner was running again, though he was prohibited from cutting or moving laterally. He did not get the green light for full participation until the start of fall training camp.
“The first practice I was a little bit nervous, but at the same time I had something to prove,” said Joyner, a backup cornerback who will enter the 2016 season as a redshirt freshman. “I came out there and played pretty good. In fact, I had two interceptions the very first day, so that kind of set the tone. (It showed) that I could still play and that I could still do everything I could do before.”
Though he had some initial concern about the possibility of re-injury, “it’s been getting better,” he said. “At the very beginning there were times when I’d plant and I could feel (some pain), but it didn’t stop me. It was something I was cautious about, but I’m working through that.”
Though Joyner was an outstanding high school running back — as a senior he rushed for 1,768 yards on 133 carries (a 13.3-yard average) with 32 touchdowns — he has so far played only defense at Washington. But just as the Huskies expect to give defensive teammate Budda Baker some snaps on offense this season, Joyner hopes at some point to do the same.
Will it happen? “Only time will tell,” he said with a smile. “But I definitely would (like the chance).”
Likewise, Joyner will probably get some opportunities on special teams, perhaps as a returner on kickoffs and punts. “He was great with the ball in his hands when he was in high school,” said UW head coach Chris Petersen, “so that’s another (thing) that can possibly happen.
“That guy’s a very ferocious competitor,” Petersen added. “He competes really hard. I think he’s still learning that (cornerback) position, but he’s a really good competitor and a really good athlete. I think he’s one of those guys that can play multiple positions (and) I’m pleased with his progress.”
With less than a week remaining before Washington’s season opener, Joyner says the team has a high level of expectation.
“I know how bad these guys want it,” he said. “We’ve got a bunch of competitors. We’ve got people who want to compete and people who want to win. I can’t say what we’re going to do or anything like that, but I can say that we have a lot of drive … and stuff to prove.”
The Huskies led the Pac-12 Conference in both scoring defense and defensive yards per game a year ago, and seven of 11 starters are back. The offensive unit also has several top returning players, including quarterback Jake Browning and tailback Myles Gaskin, and the result is a No. 14 ranking for Washington in the Associated Press preseason poll.
“There’s no doubt we have a lot of talent,” Joyner said. “But we want to go out there and prove that we’re as good as we think we are. We have a lot of guys who really want it this year, and I think that’ll be the deciding factor.”