Thorpe excited to be back on field for Heels

Aug. 06, 2013 @ 07:24 PM

T.J. Thorpe heard the joking from the North Carolina coaches over the past 12 months. There’s an opening for waterboy or graduate assistant. Or maybe he’d prefer to be an equipment manager.
One year ago Monday, Thorpe broke his left foot on the third day of training camp, causing him to miss the entire 2012 season. He then reinjured his foot during winter conditioning, causing him to miss all of spring camp.
The Jordan High graduate finally is practicing now, building up to what he hopes is a breakout 2013 season. But first thing’s first.
“Practice 3 (Saturday) was my broken foot anniversary,” the redshirt sophomore said. “Getting through that practice was a real monkey off my back. It feels like it’s been forever.
“Everyone’s been looking forward for me to get back on the field, and I’m just as happy to be back.”
Thorpe averaged an ACC-best 26.7 yards per kickoff return as a freshman, including a 100-yard touchdown at Clemson, earning honorable-mention All-ACC honors. He was expected to add receiving duties in 2012 in the multi-receiver sets of Coach Larry Fedora. But on the third practice of the summer, he ran a simple “in” route and those plans changed.
It was a route Thorpe guessed he had run a thousand times. But on this one, he broke the fifth metatarsal bone of his left foot.
Instead of being a part of UNC’s record-setting offense in 2012, Thorpe was forced to stay on the sidelines. He would watch road games at his parents’ house in Durham, jumping up and down in response to big plays, expressing himself on Twitter when his screaming got too much for his parents to take.
He also picked up on things from watching — tricks on getting open and getting into routes. And he worked his way back to the point that he was cleared to participate in offseason workouts. But Thorpe may have been a little too eager to return.
“It was one of those things like when you let a kid loose,” Thorpe said. “I started doing seven-on-sevens and running routes and not being smart and giving it enough rest.”
In mid-February, he cracked the bone again when he planted during a shuttle drill and his left foot gave out. A bone graft from his hip was screwed into his foot, and more months of recovery ensued.
Thorpe said he relied on running back A.J. Blue and linebacker Darius Lipford — Thorpe’s former AAU basketball teammate on Carolina Flight — who both suffered multiple injuries, including torn knee ligaments.
Now Thorpe says he is taking the proper precautions. On Monday, during the 30 minutes of practice that’s open to the media, Thorpe spent the first part of receiver drills getting his legs massaged.
“They’ve tried to cut me back with (repetitions), so it’s not too much at one time,” Thorpe said.
When he couldn’t run, he focused on lifting weights, to the point that he gained 20 pounds and bulked up to 215, forcing teammates to joke that he looked like a running back and making Thorpe feel like he was “waddling” when he moved.
Now he’s back to between 205-210 pounds, and his stride feels more natural. He still doesn’t feel as explosive when he makes a cut using his left foot, but each day he plants harder and gets upfield faster.
The final hurdles are mental. After injuring his foot twice on the most routine maneuvers, it took time before he could trust his foot again.
“At first it’s, ‘I don’t know, I don’t want to do too much,’” Thorpe said. “But when you start playing it’s, ‘I don’t want to get embarrassed, I don’t want to mess anything up,’ so you just kind of forget about it.”
When the first injury occurred, Thorpe would watch the tape from practice almost every day and ask, “Why me?” By now, he’s accepted it and moved on. While most players dread training camp, Thorpe couldn’t be happier.
“It’s a blessing,” Thorpe said. “Every day is not guaranteed and just to be out there and doing something I enjoy is something I cherish.”