It's only Treadwell on a treadmill. He isn't jogging particularly fast, but he is jogging. The Laquon Treadwell in the video is 25 pounds lighter than the 230 he weighed last season, when Ole Miss was poised to enter the College Football Playoff—until the moment Treadwell got caught from behind. "That was a long way to go," says Treadwell of the time between those first rehab steps and where he is today. "But it was a start." Now a junior receiver, he chose the clip as the first image of his new Instagram story because he wanted the world to see him moving again. Moving on his injured left leg and moving past that fateful night at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
This is an article from the Sept. 14, 2015 issue
The scenario last Nov. 1 was something Treadwell might have dreamed up playing in the yard or on the street in Crete, Ill., a quaint suburb south of Chicago. Four days earlier the playoff selection committee had released its inaugural ranking: Auburn was No. 3; Ole Miss was No. 4. The Rebels had seemingly come out of nowhere, beating Alabama, ranked No. 1 at the time, and rising to national prominence in a way they hadn't since the Archie Manning era. They had suffered their first loss the weekend before, a 10–7 defeat at LSU, but they could still crash the four-team playoff field by winning out.
Auburn's visit to Oxford was essentially an elimination game, and all the attendant desperation and excitement was reflected on the scoreboard. With 2:06 left in the third quarter the Tigers took their first lead since the opening minutes. Thirty-four seconds into the fourth, Ole Miss got the lead back. On Auburn's next possession tailback Cameron Artis-Payne scored on a six-yard run and the seesaw tilted again: Auburn 35, Ole Miss 31. With 1:39 remaining, the Rebels faced third-and-three from the Tigers' 20. Quarterback Bo Wallace tossed a bubble screen to the 6'2" Treadwell.
He blasted through tackle attempts by defensive lineman Montravius Adams and safety Robenson Therezie. Didn't even feel them. But as Treadwell crossed the 10-yard line, he glimpsed linebacker Kris Frost closing from his right. Treadwell feared being dragged down from behind, which caused him to hesitate for a split second instead of accelerating toward the end zone. "That's what killed the whole play," Treadwell says.
Frost grabbed Treadwell around the waist at the four and began hauling him down from behind. Planting his left foot at the one, Treadwell lunged for the goal line, but Frost tightened his grip and pulled. Treadwell's body tumbled backward over his left foot, which began sliding only after his fibula snapped and his ankle dislocated. "I felt the awkward movement," Treadwell says. "I knew I had to let the ball go to actually save myself."
The ball and the Rebels' playoff hopes bounced off Frost's leg and landed in the end zone, where Auburn linebacker Cassanova McKinzy recovered. "I knew it was a wrap. I just lay 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's season had ended with 48 catches for 632 yards and five touchdowns. He went off the field on a stretcher and spent the game's final seconds in the training room beneath the stadium. He told family and friends he was fine. He was not. When the final whistle blew and Ole Miss had lost, he cried. Then an ambulance took him to the hospital, where a doctor placed a mask over his face. "This will help you breathe," Treadwell recalls the doctor saying. When Treadwell woke, he had a cast on his surgically repaired leg and months of rehab ahead.
Working the brake and the gas pedal with his left foot was weird and "not safe at all," but Ole Miss linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche knew he had to do it anyway. A week before Treadwell's gruesome moment against Auburn, Nkemdiche broke his right ankle at LSU. It had led to a lonely week for Nkemdiche, watching his teammates prepare for the Tigers. He didn't want Treadwell to feel the same sense of isolation, so as soon as Treadwell could receive visitors, Nkemdiche drove to the hospital.
Sitting amid the gurneys and plastic food trays and shuffling nurses, the teammates promised each other they would come back—better. "We made an oath, a bond," says Nkemdiche, a senior from Loganville, Ga. "We're in this."
In the ensuing weeks Nkemdiche and Treadwell nicknamed themselves the Scooter Gang. Their injured legs rested on pads while their working legs propelled wheeled contraptions around campus. The duo milked the spectacle for all it was worth. The sorority house lunches, during which fellow students doted on the less-than-mobile players, were the best. Having Treadwell in a similar predicament "made it easy and fun," says Nkemdiche. "I look back on it now, and it wasn't a bad time in my life."
One of the most popular players on the team, Treadwell is also quick to engage fans and fellow students, who know him for his big smile. But the injury undermined his bright attitude. At first he took the pain pills doctors prescribed, but he stopped after a couple of weeks. "I wanted to feel the pain," Treadwell says. "I would try to sleep through it just to motivate myself." Sometimes he'd scroll through his phone or text friends at 3 a.m., but mostly he suffered. "It's like a fire on your foot. It's the worst feeling I've ever felt," Treadwell says. "It was torture, really. I would just have to sit there and scream, do whatever to get my mind off of it."
Treadwell doesn't remember the first night he fell asleep easily, only the relief of knowing he had beaten the pain with as little pharmaceutical intervention as possible. By January, he could run on an antigravity treadmill, and by February he and Nkemdiche were running in the Rebels' indoor practice facility, Treadwell trying to keep up with his teammate. "I like to get a feel for things first," Treadwell says. "He'd just go and do it and have no thoughts about it."
Though coach Hugh Freeze had no intention of letting Treadwell risk a setback during spring practice, it was obvious the receiver would be ready for the 2015 opener. In some ways Treadwell felt better than ever. He weighed 210 pounds and had 7% body fat, down from 11%. "I've always been telling him he needs to lose some weight," receivers coach Grant Heard says. "I didn't think he'd lose that much."
In other ways, though, Treadwell felt strange. The injury and subsequent one-legged period made walking and running on two legs feel odd. Treadwell had to relearn skills that had originally been instinctive. "Everything is still new to me," he says. "Like the first day I could cut, it was like a newborn baby walking."
James Lofton wasn't sure what to expect from Treadwell. The Hall of Famer watched Treadwell's highlights and saw 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 there," Lofton says.
The Treadwell who arrived in San Diego to take a wide receiver master class with Lofton in May was much leaner. "He looked like he had gone from a 4.5 to 4.35," Lofton says. Still, Lofton wasn't sure how Treadwell would respond to running more sophisticated and precise routes. Lofton, who coached receivers for the Chargers and the Raiders, considers Keenan McCardell the best route runner he ever tutored. McCardell, who played in the NFL for 16 years at 6'1" and 190 pounds, had to run perfect routes to get open. Treadwell could get away with sloppy ones in college because of his size and strength. But as they practiced, Lofton marveled at how quickly Treadwell absorbed details. When Lofton asked for a break at 12 yards, Treadwell hit the precise mark. Lofton asked for 14½ yards on the next rep; Treadwell planted 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."
Learning to walk and run again had forced Treadwell to pay closer attention to his footwork at the line of scrimmage and to the crispness of his breaks; Lofton was refining and codifying those lessons. "That's where your craft comes in," Treadwell says. A consensus five-star recruit and the No. 1 receiver prospect in the class of 2013, Treadwell also realized that while he had always put in the effort, he would sometimes sweat for the sake of sweating. "I really got the mental side of it," he 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 prove to be a blessing. "In the long run," Heard says, "I think it's going to be better for him."
Freeze was on his way to the SEC's spring meetings in Destin, Fla., at the end of May when he saw the video. Treadwell bounced on a friend's trampoline, flipping and twisting for the camera. When the clip hit Instagram, Rebels fans got excited. Their team's star receiver, who was a little less than seven months removed from a gruesome injury, looked healthy and at ease every time he landed. Freeze was not quite as excited by the clip: "That made me cringe a little bit."
"The trampoline," Treadwell says, "was another step." Just as he had to prove to himself he could sprint or cut before he felt comfortable, he had to show that he could take a physical risk and move without fear.
That didn't seem a sure thing when Ole Miss players began postspring workouts in April. Former Rebels and current Colts receiver Donte Moncrief encouraged his former teammates to jump rope to help their quickness, and Treadwell struggled to find a rhythm. Eventually he did. And when he wiped out during an agility drill and his teammates responded not with gasps but with laughter, he knew he was back.
One summer day a high school defensive back visiting for a camp boasted he could cover Treadwell. As they lined up, the kid told his friend to post footage of his lockdown coverage on Snapchat. "I didn't even give him a chance," Treadwell says. He knows the cornerbacks from Alabama, LSU, Auburn, Mississippi State and the rest of the SEC 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 Treadwell was ideal for the packaged plays Freeze loves. Those allow the quarterback to decide whether to hand off or throw postsnap. When defenses shifted one safety into the box to account for the run, they 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."
Still, Treadwell estimates he'll be "three times better" than he was last year because he has added speed and technique without sacrificing power. In the opener, a 76–3 drubbing of Tennessee-Martin, Treadwell caught four balls for 44 yards, although he also had a drop that led to an interception. The numbers were modest among the offensive onslaught, but he moved well and showed off his new speed on a 15-yard catch. Heard sees no reason to place a limit on his potential: "He can be as good as he wants to be."
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, focus only on the goal line and finish the journey he started in the final minutes of the Auburn game.
And after 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.