Sean Smalls isn't bitter, but as he stands on the sidelines after Thursday's training camp workout for the Hartford Colonials, he can't help wondering what might have been.
The former University of Massachusetts cornerback was mentioned as a likely 2009 NFL draft pick early in his senior year. Fast, athletic and big for his position at 6-foot-1, scouts liked his potential. But on a punt return in the Minutemen's late October 42-7 win over Bryant, Smalls slowed up as he crossed into the end zone. The slight deceleration allowed Bryant's Doug Emerzian to dive at his feet.
Smalls fell awkwardly. To make matters worse, his touchdown was negated by a penalty. Smalls returned for one play, but limped off, his college career over.
The fall left a crack in Smalls' pelvis. At first he harbored hopes that he'd make a quick recovery and return if the Minutemen made the playoffs. But it was a pipe dream. The injury ended his senior season and any hopes of being drafted.
He still thinks often about the play that at least temporarily derailed his career.
After rest and rehab was unsuccessful, Smalls opted for surgery and a long recuperation. For months he couldn't walk, let alone cover a wide receiver.
Once he was able to walk he headed to IMG Academy, the sports training complex in Bradenton Fla. to recuperate.
"I thought I could come back from it quicker than I did. It turned out to be more serious than I imagined," Smalls said. "I had never really been hurt before. I didn't understand what it takes to come back from a real serious injury."
He admitted that he often wonders what might have been if the injury hadn't occurred.
"I think about it every day," Smalls said. "Maybe if I would have run through the end zone I wouldn't be here probably. I'd probably be there playing with the top talent."
Instead he's on Sage Field just south of Hartford, a practice field the Colonials share with the Berlin High School Redcoats.
The Colonials are the local entry in the United Football League, the five-team professional league that begins it second season this year. This is the first season in Hartford as the New York Sentinels relocated there after last season.
The league has several former NFL players and coaches (ex-Browns coach Chris Palmer is coaching the Colonials) and rosters are stocked with NFL hopefuls. While the two leagues aren't officially affiliated, in the past week, 12 players left Hartford for NFL camps and some recent NFL cuts are vying for spots on the Colonials. More are expected when the NFL makes cuts next week.
Smalls hopes to someday be among the UFL alumni in the NFL, but for now he's glad to be playing football again and is focused on earning a spot on the Colonials' roster for their season opener on Sept. 18 at Rentschler Field.
"It's been good. It's been a learning experience. It's been good to be back on the field in a team atmosphere. I'm glad that Coach Palmer and Coach O (defensive coordinator Osia Davis) gave me an opportunity to go out and play," Smalls said. "I'm just trying to knock off the rust and get back at it. I'm trying to get a feel for playing again after being off after I got injured."
He said he's healthy.
"I feel pretty good. I'm making plays. I'm learning. It's practice and you're going to make a few mistakes. But every day I'm getting better and better," he said. "I'm starting to get a good feel for being out on the field again. I haven't been playing for so long. It felt good to be out there running around and banging into guys again."
Palmer hoped there was more improvement in Smalls' future.
"Smalls is a guy who is working very hard and doing well on special teams," Palmer said. "I think that injury has affected him unfortunately. He plays press coverage very well, but he's lost a little bit of a step from the injury. Hopefully the more he plays the better he'll get."
Smalls was optimistic that his story would have a happy ending.
"I'm trying to get myself to where I was before I got hurt. I'm working hard trying to get better and better every day," he said. "It's been a learning experience. Some people have to take a different route to where they want to go."
Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.