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Eastern Michigan OL Terrell beats the odds

Al Willman
Special to The Detroit News
Darien Terrell

Ypsilanti — Imagine being told you could no longer do something you’ve loved doing most of your life.

In August, Eastern Michigan redshirt senior right tackle Darien Terrell re-aggravated a left meniscus injury that two years ago required microfracture surgery. He was told before the start of this season that his career was over, indicating as much in an Instagram post at the end of that month.

But Terrell overcame the odds and made his season debut two weeks ago in EMU’s 45-31 loss to Western Michigan.

“I started feeling better during the season, I’d say Week 2,” said Terrell, who also played in Saturday’s 28-15 loss to Miami (Ohio). “The pain, I really didn’t feel it anymore, and the big thing was I had clicks in my knee that would shoot up and cause a lot of pain. But those clicks went away.”

And as a result of the previous surgery, Terrell’s knee, which would normally have muscle and cartilage protecting the kneecap from impact and wear and tear, was basically unprotected from the rigors of playing football.

“Essentially, I don’t have a meniscus left,” Terrell said. “So it was bone-on-bone and grinding. The meniscus absorbs the shock, so I didn’t have anything absorbing the shock, so it was just bone-on-bone and starting to chip away.”

Eastern’s co-director of sports performance Fred Hale, in his first year leading the program and third at the school, said originally he thought Terrell could get back on the field for one more play, ending his college career in uniform.

“I believe we were warming up for the Charlotte game (on Sept. 17), and I was thinking, (Terrell) could play one play,” Hale said. “Even if it’s a quick out, some kind of pass play, a zone outside, you could get one play. You’re not getting hurt, you’re not going to get run over, anything like that. And it got into his head.”

But that idea was not without conditions.

“I put a stipulation on him,” Hale said. “I said he had to get his weight back down, get his conditioning in order, get lifting again — hard — get ready to go, and then we’ll see how it goes.”

From there, Terrell set to work.

“He’s committed to us 110 percent,” Hale said.

‘Selflessly’ serving

Terrell’s work ethic in the weight room — which Hale classified as first in and last out — translated to the sidelines, too.

“When he thought that he needed to retire from playing, there was probably a couple days when he went home and then (we) got back together, we talked and whatnot, and he has not missed a single thing since,” EMU coach Chris Creighton said. “He’s just selflessly been serving our team, coaching guys up, being there, being totally involved helping other guys all the way through. That’s hard to do. It’s really hard to do. We’ve had other people choose to not do it that way.”

While out of the lineup, Terrell also turned the majority of his focus to the classroom. He graduated last April with an undergraduate degree in business, and is set to graduate with a Masters of Business Administration this spring.

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Terrell’s comeback has been very much below the radar. Eastern doesn’t issue an injury report, anyway, but talking to Creighton and other offensive linemen in the weeks leading up to Monday’s weekly news conference, one probably wouldn’t have seen Terrell’s name on any such report, if it existed.

“The initial plan was I was going to transition back from just conditioning and treatment and stuff, and kind of do individual (workouts during) Western week,” Terrell said. “But I got out on the field and felt better than I anticipated. So I did a little bit of team (workouts) and the initial plan was to go full and play (against Miami). It was that Thursday (before Western) that they told me I was good to go.”

While Terrell was the de facto assistant offensive line coach for the Eagles the last nine-plus weeks, he was still No. 71, not Coach Terrell.

“He never accepted the title of coach,” Creighton joked. “I tried to throw it on him a couple times because he’s really gifted in that way.”

Terrell said his experience playing the last four years was helpful on the sidelines.

“Just because I’ve been in their shoes and I kind of know just because the offensive line especially is a really tight-knit group of guys,” Terrell said. “We spend all of our time together. I know how to approach somebody (on the line) and connect with them maybe on a different level, and get my point across, than maybe a coach would.”

Seamless return

And for Terrell, the return to the lineup was seamless.

“Because he’d been so in tune to everything that we were doing, he really hasn’t missed a beat,” Creighton said. “It was crazy that he was out there playing this game. Crazy awesome.”

Terrell said he’s learned many things as a student-athlete, both on the field and off it.

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“For me, when I was not playing, I kind of realized that football’s not like any other sport, Terrell said. “I can’t go to the YMCA when I’m 40 years old and play a pick-up game of football. So just cherishing every moment, like you get into a little bit of a rut during practice or something like that, but for me I look at it a little bit differently. If I have a bad play, that’s a play that I wasn’t guaranteed earlier. So I think that’s one of the biggest takeaways, that nothing’s guaranteed and just cherish everything that you have.”

While Terrell has, after this week’s bye, three more games — maybe four if the Eagles qualify for their first bowl appearance since 1987 — he said his plan is to pursue a career in business. However, Terrell did admit that a future in coaching is not entirely out of the realm of possibility.

“I’m not sure,” he said. “I don’t know about coaching right now. I’m doing my MBA right now. I’m not completely right now (sure about) coaching, because once you get away from football, you always want to come back.”

Al Willman is a freelance writer

Twitter: @AlWillmanSports