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Catching up fast

A broken leg nearly crushed Andre Caldwell. Now he’s the Gators’ 'comeback kid.’

By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published September 1, 2006


The initials adorn many of Andre Caldwell’s T-shirts and are etched in his psyche as clearly as his name and birth date. They represent the personal motto the Florida wide receiver has adopted to help carry him through the past year.

The Come Back Kid.

Caldwell, a 21-year-old junior, comes back tonight to play in a regular-season game at Florida Field for the first time in almost a year. A broken leg against Tennessee on Sept.17 last season sent him on a path of pain and rehabilitation that tested his mind, body, spirit and faith.

The C.B.K. motto originated on a trip to Tampa one day.

“I came home, but I was still only 50 or 60 percent back,’’ Caldwell said. “I don’t know where she got it from, but my mom said you’re going to be the comeback kid because God set this out for you and he’s going to see you through it. Now I live by that motto and all my teammates know it and call me C.B.K.’’

To understand where Caldwell is coming from, you have to know where he has been the past 350 days.

***

When he lined up to receive the second-half kickoff that fateful night, Florida and Tennessee were tied at 7 in a nationally televised game. Caldwell caught the ball, someone missed a block, and as soon as he planted his foot, a helmet caught him in the thigh. He felt the sharp pain as he lay on the ground, but he thought it was a thigh bruise. When he tried unsuccessfully to get up, he knew it was more serious.

“I saw my leg was in an awkward position, and I couldn’t feel it,’’ Caldwell said. “All of it was numb. When the doctor touched me, I heard it crack. So I had a pretty good feeling it was broken. The first thing I thought was, will I ever play football again? I was thinking I don’t know if I’ll be able to come back from something serious like this.’’

Deborah Caldwell was sitting alone in the living room of her Tampa home watching the game on television.

Normally, she would have been at Florida Field, but Andre’s father, Donald, wanted to take a few of his buddies so Deborah agreed to give up her ticket.

As she watched replays and medical personnel attend to her son, a call came from her older son, Reche, a former Gator and now receiver with the San Diego Chargers.

“He said, 'Andre broke his femur,’’’ Deborah said. “I said I don’t think so,  'Bubba (the family’s nickname for Andre) is going to be all right.’ I went to pacing the floor and my husband started calling, and he was freaking out.’’
Reche was right: It was broken. Two days later Andre had surgery. What he didn’t know was that the hard part was just beginning.

***

The rest of the year was a struggle.

His daily routine was one hour of rehab in the morning (the van picked him up at 5:45 a.m.), attending classes, another hour of rehab, then back to home and into bed. At first, he couldn’t move his leg at all.

Eventually he got some flexibility back, then started running in the water. Lifting weights came much later. The pain was so great that for about two months he could only muster three or four hours of sleep. He could only sleep on his back.

“Everything seemed wrong and I was like, 'This ain’t for me. I can’t go through this,’’’ Caldwell said. “I was suffering.’’

He watched home games from the sideline, but attending practice wasn’t an option. “I had a metal rod in my leg, I was on crutches and it was hard to drag out there,’’ he said. “I would just go to rehab in the afternoons, then go home and go to bed.”

But that wasn’t the Andre Caldwell teammates and coaches knew. The guy who loves to talk and be among friends was slipping into isolation.

It was one of the main things receivers coach Billy Gonzales was concerned about the night Caldwell was injured. After the physical diagnosis, Gonzales’ thoughts immediately turned to Caldwell’s mind-set.

Gonzales had no doubt Caldwell would work hard in rehab. He believed he could come back strong because of his love for the game. But how would he handle it mentally?

“He went into a funk,’’ Gonzales said. “He lost about 20 pounds. He just wasn’t Andre. Andre was a guy that loves football and he used to always come around, but instead of wanting to come sit in the meetings, it killed him. He didn’t want to sit in the meetings anymore. He kind of just went out and stayed away. We finally had to go up there, grab him and say get your butt back in here with us. And his mother, she’s a great lady, and she was a huge help for him.’’

Andre and Deborah talked daily, sometimes four or five times.  She reminded him that he plays a sport where injuries are common, how blessed he was that he had never had a serious injury before, and how he had to keep thinking positive if he was ever to make that comeback.  

Reche, one year removed from an ACL injury, also counseled him.

“He told me to keep your faith in God, work hard and don’t ever let nobody tell you you can’t get better and be the best player you can be,’’ Andre  said. “He was there the whole time, helping me get better and keeping my confidence up.’’

So were his teammates.

“The first time I saw him in the hospital he was devastated and you could see it all over his face,’’ senior receiver Jemalle Cornelius said.

“It was about us just being there. A lot of times when you get injured, most people just go into isolation, but you need to be around people. So we tried our best to go and visit him, and when he got out of the hospital we made sure we were at the dorms just hanging out with him because you don’t want a person to go into isolation. That’s when they have all kinds of negative thoughts.’’

Deborah said she could see in Andre’s eyes and hear in his voice just how “disappointed’’ he was after the injury, but despite his struggles, he kept his grades up, earning a 3.3 GPA.

***

While he was physically incapable of playing, Caldwell says he was getting stronger mentally. He admits he used to watch game film like a fan; now he’s much more analytical. On the sideline, he became “like a coach’’ in the way he watched the games and spent more time watching film. He participated in spring drills in a limited capacity.

Five months later, he’s making the ultimate comeback.“He’s got such a competitive spirit, he came back stronger and faster than he was before he left,’’ Gonzales said. Oh yes, he has not lost a step now. And he actually has better numbers than he did before he got hurt.’’ Deborah said she’s unsure of what her emotions will be today.

Caldwell knows exactly how he will feel: thankful.

“I was always blessed with the ability to be a good player, but since the injury, I just love the game and I appreciate the game much more in all aspects,’’ he said.

“Everything happens for a reason. You just have to be strong and have God on your side. And I just knew I had to make it through this. It’s so much out there for me to achieve. I couldn’t let this hold me back.’’

The comeback is nearly complete.

FLORIDA VS. SOUTHERN MISS
WHEN/WHERE: 6 p.m., Florida Field, Gainesville
TV/RADIO: Pay per view, 620-AM
WEATHER: 92 degrees, isolated showers
LINE: Florida by 20