From heartbreak back to health: Laquon Treadwell revisits his recovery
OXFORD, Miss.—Laquon Treadwell appreciates the support. Every offered prayer. Every thumbs-up emoticon. But he can't keep looking back. So, one day, he wipes it all away. The successfulquon Instagram account, where the Ole Miss star receiver had narrated his life story with images and videos, where friends and fans alike had come to offer condolences and encouragement after Treadwell's 2014 season ended with a nationally televised snap of his left leg late in the fourth quarter against Auburn, goes blank.
Then, on Jan. 21, this appears.
It's only Treadwell on a treadmill. He isn't jogging particularly fast, but he is jogging. The Treadwell in the video is 25 pounds lighter than the 230 he played at during a season in which the Rebels beat the eventual SEC champion and still had a shot at reaching the College Football Playoff until the moment Treadwell got caught from behind. "That's a long way to go," Treadwell, now a junior, will say nearly seven months later. "But it was a start." Treadwell chooses this as the first image of his new story because he wants the world to see him moving. Moving on his injured leg and moving past that night at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
The scenario on Nov. 1 is something boys might have dreamt up playing in the backyard. Three days earlier, the playoff selection committee released the body's first ranking. Auburn was No. 3. Ole Miss was No. 4. The Rebels had suffered their first loss the weekend before, a 10-7 defeat at LSU. But Ole Miss has a win over Alabama in hand, and LSU has two SEC losses at the time. All the Rebels have to do is keep winning and they will crash the inaugural playoff field.
Auburn comes to Oxford for what seems to be a playoff elimination game. It lives up to the hype. With 1:58 left in the third quarter, Auburn takes its first lead since four minutes remained in the opening quarter. Thirty-four seconds into the fourth, Ole Miss takes the lead back. On Auburn's next possession, tailback Cameron Artis-Payne scores on a six-yard run and the seesaw tilts again. Auburn 35, Ole Miss 31. With 1:38 remaining, the Rebels face third-and-three from the Tigers' 20-yard line. Quarterback Bo Wallace tosses a bubble screen to the 6' 2" Treadwell.
Going back to high school, Treadwell dreaded getting yanked down from behind. He assumed that when a season-ending injury came, it would start with that very act. This August, as he watches a video of the play that turned from a game-winning touchdown into a game-losing fumble with the crack of his fibula, Treadwell scolds himself for not maintaining top speed. He runs through tackle attempts from defensive lineman Montravius Adams and safety Robenson Therezie. Doesn't even feel them. But as Treadwell crosses the 10-yard line, he glimpses linebacker Kris Frost closing from his right. Instead of accelerating toward the end zone, Treadwell slows ever so slightly. "That's what killed the whole play," Treadwell says.
Frost grabs Treadwell around the waist at the four-yard line and begins trying to haul him down. Treadwell fights for those final yards. Just as Frost gets a firm grip and yanks, Treadwell plants his left foot at the one-yard line. The foot stays there. Treadwell knows something is wrong. "Once I got pulled back, I felt the awkward movement," he says. "I knew I had to let the ball go to actually save myself."
The rest of Treadwell's body tumbles backward over his foot, which begins sliding only after Treadwell's lower leg snaps, dislocating his ankle. The ball and the Rebels' playoff hopes bounce off Frost's leg and land in the end zone. Treadwell knows any player within lunging distance will soon pile atop the ball, so he tries to crawl out of the way. Auburn linebacker Cassanova McKinzy pounces.
"I knew it was a wrap. I just laid there. I couldn't even believe it," Treadwell says. "Thinking you're going to the playoffs, making the game-winning touchdown. Everything I ever wanted. The thing that hurt me the most was I knew I had to wait a whole year or two or whatever to get back on the field."
Treadwell spends the game's final seconds in the training room beneath the stadium. He tells family and friends he's fine. He is not. When the final whistle blows and Ole Miss has lost, he cries. Then he is loaded into an ambulance bound for the hospital. There, a doctor places a mask over Treadwell's head. "This will help you breathe," Treadwell remembers the doctor saying. When Treadwell wakes, he has a cast on his surgically repaired leg and a long rehab ahead.
Fortunately for Treadwell, he has a friend in a similar situation.
The night Treadwell has surgery, Ole Miss linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche is only a week removed from breaking his ankle at LSU. It was a lonely week for the scooter-bound Nkemdiche as his teammates prepared for Auburn, and Nkemdiche doesn't want Treadwell to feel the same sense of solitude. So, as soon as Treadwell can receive visitors, Nkemdiche drives to the hospital. Nkemdiche had broken his right ankle, so he works the gas pedal and brake with his left foot. "It was definitely very weird," Nkemdiche says. "Not safe at all." Nkemdiche arrives at the hospital and finds Treadwell. They promise one another they will come back better. "From that point on, we made a silent oath, a silent bond," Nkemdiche says. "We're in this."
In the ensuing weeks Nkemdiche and Treadwell nickname themselves the Scooter Gang. Their injured legs rest on pads while their working legs propel wheeled contraptions to get them around campus. The duo milks its form of transportation for all it's worth. The sorority house lunches, with kind fellow students doting over the less-than-mobile players, are the best. Having Treadwell in a similar predicament "made it easy and fun," says Nkemdiche, a senior. "I look back on it now, and it wasn't a bad time in my life."
Those early weeks aren't so easy for Treadwell, who takes the pain pills doctors prescribed for about two weeks before quitting them. "I wouldn't say I was getting addicted," Treadwell says. "I didn't like the feeling of having to pick up a bottle and take pills just to go to sleep." So, Treadwell lays in bed and burns. "I just wanted to feel the pain," he says. "I would just try to sleep through the pain just to motivate myself." He scrolls through his phone and texts friends at 3 a.m., but mostly he aches. "It's like a fire on your foot. It's the worst feeling I've ever felt," Treadwell says. "It was torture, really. It felt like something was burning in my foot. I would just have to sit there and scream, just bite the pillow, just do whatever to get my mind off of it."
Over time, the wounds heal and the pain subsides. Treadwell doesn't remember the first night he falls asleep easily, only the relief of knowing he beat the pain with as little pharmaceutical intervention as possible. By January, he and Nkemdiche are running in the Rebels' indoor practice facility. Treadwell moves faster through his rehab as he tries to match Nkemdiche. They aren't racing in the video Treadwell posts to Instagram, but, in a way, Treadwell is trying to keep up with his teammate. "I like to get a feel for things first," Treadwell says. "He'll just go and do it and have no thoughts about it."
Before long, Treadwell is back at top speed.
By February, Treadwell can sprint. Though Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze has no intention of letting Treadwell risk a setback during spring practice, it is obvious Treadwell should be ready to play in time for the start of the 2015 season. In some ways, Treadwell feels better than ever. He weighs 210 pounds and has just 7% body fat. "I've always been telling him he needs to lose some weight," Ole Miss receivers coach Grant Heard says. "I didn't think he'd lose that much weight." Heard knows Treadwell feels better carrying less weight, and he knows that Treadwell will likely play better upon his return because he feels better about himself.
In other ways, though, Treadwell feels strange. The injury and subsequent one-legged period have made walking and running on two legs feel odd. Treadwell must relearn movements he learned instinctively as a toddler. "Everything is still new to me," he says. "Like the first day I could cut, it was like a newborn baby walking."
Things continue to progress. During a May trip to San Diego, Treadwell does more than ride a bicycle. He also takes a wide receiver master class taught by Hall of Famer James Lofton. Learning to walk and run again on his surgically repaired leg has taught Treadwell to pay closer attention to his footwork at the line of scrimmage and to the crispness of his breaks when running routes. "That's where your craft comes in," Treadwell says.
Lofton isn't sure what to expect from Treadwell. He has watched Treadwell's highlights at Ole Miss, and he sees a 225-pounder outmuscling corners on back-shoulder fades or trying to drag tacklers on bubble screens. "There's not much of a route tree here," Lofton says.
The Treadwell who Lofton meets in person weighs 208 pounds. This Treadwell would dust the 225-pounder from the film in a 40-yard dash. "He looked like he had gone from 4.5 to 4.35," Lofton says. Still, Lofton isn't sure how Treadwell will respond to routes with which he isn't familiar. Lofton, who coached receivers for the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders, considers Keenan McCardell the best route-runner he ever coached. McCardell, who played at 185 pounds, had to run perfect routes. Treadwell could get away with sloppy ones in college because of his physical gifts. What shocks Lofton is how quickly Treadwell picks up the minutiae of the routes. He asks for a break at 12 yards. Treadwell hits the precise mark. Lofton asks for 14 ½ yards on the next rep. Treadwell plants on the spot. "He had that lightness on his feet that Keenan had—and still the power," Lofton says. "Everything that I said to do he could do without demonstration."
Treadwell realizes that while he always worked hard, he would sometimes sweat for the sake of sweating. "I really got the mental side of it," Treadwell says. "It's not just working hard. It's knowing what you're working on and working for a purpose." Given that perspective, the injury could wind up helping Treadwell's career. "In the long run, I think it's going to be better for him," Heard says. "He got to see."
Treadwell knows he still has to show on the field that focused work can produce a better receiver. But first, he has a little fun.
Growing up in Crete, Ill., Treadwell always loved trampolines. After all, he's a natural bouncer. So, on a visit to a friend's house in late May, Treadwell flips and twists for the camera. The video hits Instagram, and Ole Miss fans get excited. Their team's star receiver, who is a little less than seven months removed from a gruesome injury, who made 48 catches for 632 yards with five touchdowns in 2014 despite missing the Rebels' final four games, looks completely at ease every time he lands. Ole Miss coach Freeze, who is on his way to the SEC's spring meetings in Destin, Fla., when he sees the video, is not as amused. "That made me cringe a little bit," Freeze says in Destin. "He desires to get back and to be even better than he was, so it's a bit hard to keep him patient. It's time to turn him loose, though."
"The trampoline," Treadwell says, "was just another step." Just as Treadwell had to prove to himself he could sprint or cut before he felt comfortable, he had to prove that he could take a physical risk and move without fear. With the help of the Ole Miss medical staff, Treadwell has taught himself to move effortlessly again.
That didn't seem a sure thing when Ole Miss players began post-spring workouts two months earlier. Former Rebels and current Indianapolis Colts receiver Donte Moncrief encouraged his former teammates to jump rope to help their quickness, and Treadwell—a nimble skipper of rope in his youth—struggled to find a rhythm. But it came back. And when Treadwell wiped out during an agility drill and his teammates responded not with gasps but with laughter, he knew he was back.
This catch is easy. One summer day, a local high schooler visiting for a camp boasts he can cover Treadwell. The kid tells his friend to post footage of his lockdown coverage on Snapchat. "I didn't even give him a chance," Treadwell says. "I was like, 'Throw the ball up.'"
Treadwell knows the cornerbacks from Alabama, LSU, Auburn, Mississippi State and others will pose a far greater challenge. But he's confident he can test them even more than he did during his sophomore campaign. At his previous size and speed, Treadwell was ideal for the packaged plays Freeze loves. Such plays allow the quarterback to decide whether to hand off or to throw post-snap, and when defenses rolled one safety into the box to account for that run option, it often left Treadwell one-on-one with a defender he could overpower. "If they roll one-high [to a single deep safety], he doesn't have to beat them real bad to have a chance because he's so strong and physical," Freeze says. "He'll be one-on-one with good DBs and they can go shoulder-to-shoulder and he'll make the catch."
Thanks to the weight loss and his refined technique, Treadwell claims he is faster and more explosive without losing any of that power. If he is correct, he'll be one of the toughest receivers in the nation to cover one-on-one. "He's quick on his feet, making tighter cuts," Ole Miss senior safety Mike Hilton says. "Him losing that weight is going to help."
Treadwell estimates he'll be "three times better" than he was last year. Despite the wideout having to adjust to a new quarterback—Chad Kelly, Devante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan are competing for the spot—Heard sees no reason to place a limit on the multiplier. "He can be as good as he wants to be," the receivers coach says.
Some Saturday soon, Treadwell will catch another pass and turn toward the end zone. Maybe he'll remember the yank and the snap that ended last season. Maybe he'll block it out and focus only on the goal line. Soon, he'll finally get to finish the journey he started in the waning minutes of the Auburn game.
And when he does, he'll probably post a shot of the scoreboard on Instagram. From the slow jog on the treadmill to the celebration on the happier side of the goal line, another chapter will be complete.