Aug. 15, 2011: Elvis Fisher won’t stop screaming.
The 6-foot-5-inch, 300-pound offensive tackle seems suddenly destructible, lying on the practice field in a heap. He writhes on the ground, grasping at a left knee that won't stop its searing pain.
Casey Hairston, an assistant athletic trainer, yells for head trainer Rex Sharp, who is observing practice on the next field. Michael Sam, the defensive end who had just challenged Fisher in a one-on-one pass rush drill, watches, helpless. His teammates do the same.
“That was probably the worst day of my college life, when Elvis went down,” Sam said more than a year later.
After being carted off the field, Fisher sits inside the treatment room at the Mizzou Athletic Training Complex. His kneecap, as he remembers it, “was all hanging to the side.”
“Hey, so am I out for a couple weeks or what?” Fisher asks Hairston.
“No, a little longer than that. …” the trainer replies.
The MRIs confirm what Sharp and Hairston already know. Fisher has torn his left patellar tendon, a ligament that attaches the bottom of the kneecap to the top of the shinbone. His season is over. His career is on the ropes.
Surgery is scheduled for the next morning.
Aug. 21, 2011: Rex Sharp has had enough.
Fisher sits in Sharp’s office, five days after a successful surgery to repair the patellar tendon. The time since has been filled largely with Fisher asking questions. Not of his trainers or teammates or anyone in particular. No one has the answers.
Why me? Why now?
He searched the Internet for cases similar to his, trying in vain to find a silver lining in the abrupt end to his redshirt senior season.
“There were very few cases, but the ones I did find didn’t turn out too well,” he said.
After five days of watching Fisher sink lower and lower into depression and inactivity, Sharp was fed up. Yes, Fisher had caught a bad break. Yes, his injury was a freak accident – one that Sharp had never treated in 32 years as an athletic trainer.
But none of that could be avoided or amended. Sharp, sitting across from the hulking lineman, sent a simple message:
“You can’t change the past. It’s time to move forward.”
In any rehabilitation, Sharp says, the training staff can only do so much. They can provide you with the appropriate surgery and then prepare a specific treatment plan designed to guide you through each step of the healing process. But in the end, the injured athlete needs to buy in – to truly believe in that plan and dedicate themselves to their future.
That’s something the training staff can’t force. You’ll either embrace your recovery, or you won’t.
In Sharp’s office on Sunday night, with a year’s worth of pain and sweat ahead of him, Fisher bought in.
Sept. 3, 2011: Justin Britt has a new coach.
After each series in Missouri’s season debut against Miami of Ohio, Justin Britt, the team’s new left tackle trots to the sideline, making a beeline for Fisher. He prefers his older teammate to some of the sterner coaches, someone who has all of the knowledge but none of the excessive volume.
Fisher received the script of offensive plays before the first game and was given a simple objective. Take Britt, who had previously trained as a guard, and help him to protect James Franklin’s blind side.
Nearly a year later, Britt says their relationship has hardly changed.
“He’s still helping me. When he went down, he was like the angel on my shoulder, telling me what to do. He gave me tips that he uses and techniques that he does, and with some stuff, I still don’t know how he does it,” Britt said, shrugging. “Never figured it out.”
During the opening game, a 17-6 victory, Fisher watches his teammates pull ahead and eventually pull away. He watches Britt, specifically, hoping the sophomore can make the best of a new situation.
That’s all he can do – watch. Despite embracing his job as a makeshift coach, Fisher knows where he belongs.
“It was weird, just because I’ve been on that field all my life,” he said. “It was tough to look at it.”
Feb. 7, 2012: Elvis Fisher has one more chance.
In his office, Sharp gets a call from a member of Missouri’s compliance staff, who relays a decision made by the NCAA.
Fisher, who had applied for a medical hardship waiver months earlier, has been granted a sixth season as a Missouri Tiger.
Sharp says he will call back and sets off in the Mizzou Athletic Training Complex to find his most dedicated athlete. The lineman, who is now capable of both running and lifting weights with his lower body, is in a meeting.
When he gets out, Sharp tells him little, wanting Fisher to hear it from a more official source.
“Hey Elvis, we got a call from compliance,” Sharp says.
“You did?” Fisher asks, his curiosity clearly piqued.
“Here,” Sharp responds, “let me get them on the phone.”
From Sharp’s cell phone, Fisher hears the same news his trainer heard minutes earlier. He hangs up and calls his dad. He won’t stop smiling.
His teammates, running through skill improvement drills that day, hear of the good news, too. They won’t stop smiling, either.
July 31, 2012: Elvis Fisher has demands.
Sitting in a car outside Memorial Stadium, the sixth-year senior points a camera at himself and begins to rattle off a list of ways the Missouri staff can satisfy him.
He needs better soap. He needs his Twitter handle to replace the name on the back of his jersey. He needs to stop sweating so much.
In reality, he’s just happy to have another chance to experience fall camp. He aches to get started, to rejoin his teammates in 7:15 a.m. practices. He’s excited to compete in that one-on-one pass rush drill again, shoving smaller defensive ends out of the way of his quarterback.
A scar that runs vertically down his left knee is the only lingering reminder of that August day last year. His personality, jovial and light hearted, is the same.
After being granted another year of eligibility, Fisher decided to embrace his seniority.
Although he always looked like the team’s elder statesman, with patches of dark brown hair scattered around the edges of his mostly-bald head, now the 23-year-old is truly the team’s grandfather. Fisher has protected Chase Daniel, Blaine Gabbert and now Franklin. For some of his teammates, it feels as if he’s been here as long as the columns.
Eventually, his age became a recurring joke over social media, as Fisher and his friends began ending tweets with the hashtag #6thYearProblems.
“My friend said to me that the NCAA is going to start looking at me for embezzling money or stealing money from the university for six years. That’s a sixth-year problem,” Fisher said, describing the birth of the hashtag. “I was like … sixth year problem! So we started tweeting some of these.”
Fisher still laughs about it, recalling the jokes that various fans and teammates sent in his direction.
“What was it like playing in the Big Eight? #6thYearProblem,” he rattles off.
Despite – or maybe because of – his age, and everything it took in the last year to get back on the field, Fisher doesn’t take life or football too seriously.
“When it comes down to the end of the day, this is a game. This is a game that you’re playing. It’s not life or death out there,” he said. “You have to go out there and have fun with it.”
In what is now certainly his final season, he isn’t holding anything back. When it’s time to do his job, he does it. And off the field, he is almost impossible to miss, both because of his size and his willingness to playfully tease anyone in his general vicinity.
After five years, 40 starts and a surgery resulting in a reconstructed left knee, there’s only one thing left for Fisher:
The Southeastern Conference.
Sept 1, 2012: Elvis Fisher is back where he belongs.
This one hasn’t happened yet. It’s a dream, a goal, a conclusion six years in the making.
At 6 p.m. on Saturday night, Fisher will stand alongside his teammates on Faurot Field. As the sun sets around them, more than 70,000 golden-clad fans will cheer for something new, and something old.
New uniforms. New turf. New Conference. Old left tackle.
“Just being able to see Elvis go out and take that coin toss – in a uniform – and then start at left tackle, that will be pretty cool. I’m looking forward to it,” Sharp said, his eyes misting as he speaks. “He means a great deal to me.”
He’ll walk to the center of the field on that reconstructed left knee, with fellow captains T.J. Moe and Zaviar Gooden at his side, and meet the referees and opposing team’s captains. He’ll stop there, take a deep breath and look at everything that surrounds him.
Back in Sharp’s office more than a year ago, this is why Fisher decided to keep going. This is what he worked so hard for.
When the ball is kicked and Franklin leads the 2012 Missouri Tigers onto the field for the first time, Elvis Fisher will be ready to prove himself … again.