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'I Knew I Had to Come Back'

Penn State's Juice Scruggs says he ready to play football again, nearly 17 months after a serious car accident.

Penn State's Juice Scruggs has spent nearly 17 months, about half of them wearing a back brace, waiting to play football again in front of a Beaver Stadium crowd. He knows that might not happen this season.

But Scruggs made certain he was part of the first group of players who began voluntary workouts in June, because he's intent on playing again. Scruggs established that goal soon after waking up in the hospital following a 2019 car accident that left him with a fractured vertebra, a concussion and a sense of thanks at being alive.

"It made me really start to think, to be grateful for everything I have and really appreciate what I have here at Penn State," Scruggs said. "I knew I had to come back."

Scruggs, an offensive lineman from Ashtabula, Ohio, did not play in 2019 after suffering a serious back injury in a car accident the week before spring drills began. As a redshirt freshman last year, Scruggs expected spring practice to lead to playing time at center.

But during spring break in early March, Scruggs was involved in an accident in which he was ejected from the vehicle.

"It was something out of my control," he said. "It was nobody's fault."

The injuries left him hospitalized for a week and homebound for another week, much of which was sleepless because Scruggs tried to avoid taking pain medication. The injuries also paused a promising football career.

Scruggs, a member of the 2018 recruiting class, arrived at Penn State as a 4-star prospect from Erie Cathedral Prep, which went 28-0 and won PIAA championships during his junior and senior seasons.

On Signing Day, Penn State coach James Franklin said Scruggs was the best player in the 2017 PIAA 4A state-championship game. Mike Mischler, Erie Cathedral Prep head coach, called Scruggs "literally irreplaceable." In 2018, Scruggs was named one of Penn State's offensive scout team players of the year.

Scruggs, who played in one game during his freshman season, wasn't about to let go of that promise. He returned to Penn State two weeks after the accident, wearing a back brace for much of the 2019 season and riding a scooter to classes. 

Walking was painful, and it didn't help that the scooter occasionally stopped running. But Scruggs kept going, riding the scooter for what he called "a good five months,' thinking about the season.

"I was just listening to the doctors and trainers, being patient," Scruggs said. "There are times when you're going to get discouraged with any injury, especially one that I had that was so long. But I was just fighting through it knowing that hard times don't last forever and eventually it will be my time again. I had that in the back of my mind the whole time."

Scruggs initially began lifting with strength coach Dwight Galt, doing primarily chest and arm work. Galt stood next to Scruggs, handing him weights, which Scruggs lifted while wearing the brace.

Scruggs had hoped he could return to play during the 2019 season. When that timeline changed, Scruggs shifted his attention to becoming a de facto student assistant.

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Franklin awarded Scruggs a spot on every travel roster, so the lineman made all the road trips in 2019. He shadowed the coaches, watched their sideline interactions and assisted in any way he could.

"Coach Franklin said, 'We know how badly you want to be out there, so we want to let you travel and stay locked in,'" Scruggs said. "I was always learning the signals, learning not just my position but every offensive line position. It was cool just to be back and see what the coaches see. I treated it like I was about to play."

Scruggs was cleared to remove the brace ("It was like being let out of a cage," he said) and practice with the team before the Cotton Bowl. But he said his back reacted poorly to the flight to Dallas, so Scruggs rested as a precaution.

Having missed spring drills last year, Scruggs was eager to return this past March. He had excelled in winter workouts and kept his snapping skills sharp. New offensive line coach Phil Trautwein was impressed with Scruggs immediately.

"Juice is doing awesome," Trautwein said this past spring. "He did everything this winter with me. His technique is getting better. He's starting to play on his legs his again, and I feel like he's a guy who can play all five [offensive line positions].

"Going into this spring we were going to put him at center, but he also has the athletic feet to play tackle and then he has the power in his legs to play guard."

Scruggs, who said he's 285 pounds, worked out at home during the campus shutdown and snapped to a target he attached to a fence. Having recovered from the accident, Scruggs said spring's cancellation was another chance to make the best of a challenging situation.

It's a personality trait teammates have noticed.

"I've been waiting for him to get back, because I like watching him play," center Michal Menet said. "He's been absolutely grinding every single day since it happened, trying to get back, doing everything he could, everything the trainers and doctors asked. I definitely have to give him props. He wants to play, you can tell."

When Scruggs woke up in the hospital, a family member said, "Your boys are here." Penn State teammates Evan Presta, with whom Scruggs played at Erie Cathedral Prep, and Journey Brown walked into the hospital room.

Brown brought his sense of humor ("He really lit it up," Scruggs said) and support from Penn State. That meant a lot.

Scruggs said that the back injury is behind him now. So this is how he wants to repay his teammates.

"I think I'm just going to show everybody that I can still play football," Scruggs said.

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