*Marcus Malbrough's name was spelled incorrectly in an earlier version of this article.
COLUMBIA — Five seconds before the hit that changed his life, Munir Prince wasn’t thinking about where he came from.
He wasn’t thinking about the high school state football championship he had won in 2005 with DeSmet in St. Louis.
He wasn’t thinking about the two seasons he had spent under Charlie Weis at Notre Dame, a place that felt less like a college and more “like I was in camp with the frickin’ Dallas Cowboys.”
He wasn’t thinking about his transfer to Missouri, or about the ball girl he had seen but never met who was standing on the sideline a few yards away.
On Aug. 26, 2010, a Thursday afternoon and the final football scrimmage before the season started, Prince was focused only on what was ahead of him – the next play.
The next play, for Prince, meant everything. This was the last chance to make a strong impression. Going into the scrimmage, Prince was battling for a starting cornerback position in his final season at Missouri. The next play – the next tackle, or missed tackle – could make all the difference.
The ball carrier, safety Jasper Simmons, was heading his way.
Simmons snatched the punted football out of the air and began to run up the field. Prince, sprinting in to cover the punt, took large strides towards Simmons. He was a small, compact missile gliding toward his target.
But before Prince could reach Simmons, defensive end *Marcus Malbrough engulfed him from the side. Malbrough’s 245 pounds accelerated through the 185-pound cornerback like a semi truck smashing through a compact car.
Malbrough hit Prince, and Prince hit the turf. Neck first.
Even if you didn’t see the hit, you certainly heard it. Years later, cornerbacks coach Cornell Ford can still remember the pop.
But even so, this was football – a sport played by warriors. Like acrobats walking a tight rope, collisions are dangerous for football players, yet also part of the job.
You get hit, you stand up and then you get hit again.
This hit was different, though. Prince didn’t stand up.
He lay on his back on the Faurot Field turf and stared straight up at the sky. It was all he could do. He saw clouds roll slowly past. He could hear his teammates running around him, unfazed.
Seconds ticked by. Still nothing.
“Get off the ground!” his coaches yelled. He heard them, and he tried. But for the first time in his life, his body failed him.
As the clock continued ticking and the extent of his injury became obvious, trainers Casey Hairston and Rex Sharp placed Prince on a stretcher. His stepfather, Elmer Rhodes, ran down from his seat in the Memorial Stadium bleachers. Carl Gettis, one of Prince’s close friends and a fellow cornerback, stood over him and prayed.
Others cried, their tears partially hidden behind helmets and facemasks.
Prince, too, realized that something was wrong. Once the fastest man on the field, now he was a crumpled mass of dead weight. It was as if his wings had been clipped. He was like a corpse, motionless, desperate to feel anything.
Before the world went black, Prince heard a voice. He didn’t see the person, but he recognized him by a single word.
“Don’t worry, vato,” Rhodes told him, using the Spanish word for dude. It had been their special word since he was a boy, a small statement of recognition between a father and a son.
“It’ll be all right, vato. I’m here.”
Almost four years before the hit that changed his life, Prince was golden.
The lights shined bright Sept. 2, 2006, inside Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta. In his first college football game, Prince had low expectations. Then a running back, it was unlikely that a true freshman would see the field, especially when Notre Dame’s Darius Walker had solidified himself as the starter.
A wide-eyed newcomer on the national stage, Prince was content to sit on the bench and keep his white jersey clean.
Late in Notre Dame’s 14-10 win over Georgia Tech, Walker was forced to temporarily leave the game with an injury. Prince, who was nonchalantly cracking jokes with some of the other freshmen, saw the play but didn’t realize the implications.
“Munir! Munir! Get in!”
As his coaches urged him to strap on his helmet, Prince cycled through emotions.
Panic. Excitement. Nervousness. More panic.
He stood up and sprinted onto the field, a white and gold blip in front of 55,000 screaming fans. He didn’t catch a pass or touch the ball, but he was out there. He had arrived.
“It was really a surreal experience,” Prince says. “It was like my feet were moving but my mind really wasn’t processing what was going on. Your first college game – I think it’s something everybody remembers.”
Sitting in a chair inside the receivers room at the Missouri Athletic Training Complex, Prince remembers the game fondly. His black hair is short and neat, as is his thin goatee. He wears a black MU polo and slacks. A wristband dangles at the end of his thin, muscular arm, the words “LEAVE NOTHING” printed on it in capital letters.
In front of him, the jerseys of Missouri players who went on to the NFL are framed and hung on the wall.
Jeremy Maclin. Danario Alexander. Chase Coffman. Michael Egnew.
Prince’s jersey isn’t among them. It never will be. But for a brief moment on the Georgia Tech field, Prince was young, talented and full of hope. He wasn’t yet a star, but that would come in time. He was fast, and he was happy.
He had his whole career ahead of him.
Two hours after the hit that changed his life, Prince couldn’t wiggle.
Not his fingers. Not his toes. Not anything.
In a bed at University Hospital on the evening of Aug. 26, 2010, Prince waited. He waited for feeling to return. He could speak, but barely. With nothing to do but wait, Prince was tortured by a thought.
“Am I going to be like this for the rest of my life?”
A nurse shuffled in and out, repeatedly asking Prince if he could wiggle his toes. He tried, and he failed.
Again. Again. Again.
He was fighting, but he wasn’t alone. Beside him, Rhodes sat and stared at his stepson. The two had always been close, especially after he introduced Prince to football at age 7. Rhodes isn’t Prince’s biological father, but Prince still calls him "Dad."
Rhodes is the only father he has ever known.
As the night dragged on, people kept showing up. His teammates – Gettis, Wes Kemp, Robert Steeples and Kevin Rutland – stood by, nervous. His coach, Gary Pinkel, paced frantically in the waiting room, a wreck.
Malbrough – the man who had put him there, and his best friend on the team – sat next to Prince, his body shaking with panic. He read Bible passages, and stopped only to turn towards Prince and beg for forgiveness.
Hours crawled by. Gradually, Prince began to make progress. He successfully wiggled his toes on the fifth try. Sensation returned to his fingers. Eventually, he was diagnosed with transient quadriplegia, or temporary paralysis.
As the room emptied, Malbrough told Prince he intended to stay the night. If Prince had to stay, so would he. Prince, though, knew better.
“Man, you’ve got practice tomorrow,” Prince told him. He managed a smile. “You have to go.”
The next day, Prince began moving his legs and arms. He still couldn’t move his head from side to side, but it was a start. The nurse told him not to try to walk, but Prince hardly heard her.
The sooner he could walk, the sooner he could run. And the sooner he could run, the sooner he could play.
With Rhodes sleeping beside him, Prince pushed himself to the edge of the bed. He leaned off and let his feet hit the floor.
Then, he collapsed.
By Friday night, though, Prince was able to make a slow lap around the room with the help of a nurse and a walker. On the morning of Saturday, Aug. 28, he was released.
Three and a half weeks after the hit that changed his life, Prince’s dream died.
All of his feeling had returned. He could shift. He could cut. He could run a 40-yard-dash in 4.3 seconds, just like before. He told Pinkel he was ready to practice.
Pinkel responded by calling a meeting.
With his parents, coach Ford and Sharp seated beside him, Pinkel delivered the verdict.
“We don’t want you playing ball anymore,” Pinkel said. “It’s not that we don’t want you to play. We’re looking at your safety. We want you to play for us, but it’s just not safe for you.”
Seated at the desk in his office, Pinkel said that four out of five doctors had advised him not to let Prince play. He told Prince that he was still part of the team, that they wouldn’t leave him behind. He said that he would make a great coach, but Prince didn’t hear him.
He didn’t argue. He didn’t fight back. He just … stopped.
“That may have been even worse than being in the hospital,” Prince says.
During the next week, Prince rarely left his home. Usually an exemplary student, he didn’t attend classes. He didn’t go to team functions either. His teammates called, but he didn’t answer.
Football had been taken from him. Were those guys – the ones he now calls “brothers” – even his teammates anymore?
Then, a knock at the door. It was Gettis. He was going to bring Prince to practice, and he wasn’t going to take no for an answer.
“I told him he was a leader on the team,” Gettis says, “even if he couldn’t show up in uniform.”
With the help of his brother, Prince walked out the door and rejoined his second family.
Nearly a year after the hit that changed his life, Prince slept on an air mattress.
He could no longer play football, but football was still his life.
After traveling with the team and helping the coaches in practices throughout the 2010 season, Prince was named an offensive quality control graduate assistant in July 2011.
To maintain “quality control,” Prince was forced to do the dirty work. He assembled game plans. He uploaded videos. He stapled packets and sent mail.
He was, he says now, “a glorified football secretary.”
Often, Prince worked at the Missouri Athletic Training Complex until 3 or 4 a.m. before returning for 7 a.m. meetings. He barely had time for homework, and he almost never slept.
When he did, he first had to blow up the air mattress.
Seeing how late Prince typically left for home, recruiting coordinator Carol Weis brought in her blow-up mattress and donated it to Missouri’s youngest coach.
“I would blow that thing up and put it right behind my desk,” Prince says, and he laughs. “As soon as I finished doing whatever I had to do, I would just sleep on that little mattress, and wake up the next day and start going at it again.”
Prince could no longer play the game he loved, yet he went to work every day and watched other people fulfill their potential. They were doing all the things he never could, and all he could do was sit there and edit film.
It stung, sure. But not having football would have been worse. After years around the game, it had become a part of him, like a vital organ he couldn’t remove.
“I wouldn’t say football is all I know, but it’s a big part of what makes me me,” Prince says. “To go from playing to nothing at all, I don’t think I would have known what to do with myself.”
So Prince soldiered on. He blew up the air mattress, day after day. He couldn’t play, but he still showed up.
Through countless nights in late 2011 spent on a dark, cold floor, Prince rediscovered his competitive edge.
“He’s got a mean streak now,” Rhodes says with a laugh. “He’ll beat you with a smile on his face, showing them pearly whites.”
In the years since his injury, Prince’s priorities haven’t changed. His life still revolves around school and football.
That, and a girl.
A day after the hit that changed his life, Prince met a girl.
Andrea Gomez saw Prince fall. She had never met him, but as a voluntary ball girl for the football team, she knew who he was.
She knew also what it felt like to get hurt, to realize that in a moment everything you hold dear could be taken from you.
A few years before, Gomez had attended her first Missouri football game with her best friend. On the way home, a semi truck collided with her compact car.
She was bruised. Her friend was killed.
Seeing Prince carried off the field, she felt she could relate to him. His injury – the devastating end to a chapter in his life – also signaled a new beginning.
“I just felt like he was going through the same type of thing,” says Gomez, who graduated from Missouri on May 18. “It’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, I almost just died. What do I do now?’ Everything has changed.”
Gomez visited Prince in the hospital on Friday, Aug. 27, 2010. She introduced herself, but he already knew who she was. They talked about their common home, St. Louis, and football – anything to distract Prince from the reality of his injury.
The next day, she came again. Prince couldn’t understand why a relative stranger would feel so invested in his life. No one is this nice, he thought.
And yet, there she was.
“You know what, Munir? You need to keep talking to that Andrea girl,” Rhodes told him after she left. “She likes you, and I can tell that you like her.”
They haven’t stopped talking since. On Christmas Eve 2012, Prince asked Gomez to marry him in front of all of her family. She said yes.
Almost three years ago, a hit at the end of a scrimmage took things from Prince. It took his speed, at least for a little while. It took the NFL dreams he had imagined since childhood.
He realizes now what it provided.
“You meet the greatest people when you’re at the lowest point,” Prince says. He speaks quietly, stopping to flash a sheepish grin. “You meet the people who are really going to be there for you.”
Two years and nine months after the hit that changed his life, Prince is bracing for the next round of hits.
Late nights. Low pay. Little job security.
This is the life of a football coach.
Despite the business management degree he earned in 2010 and the financial planning degree that came a year later, Prince now wants to become a coach. Somewhere along the line – perhaps during a late night lying restlessly on an air mattress – he realized just how important football was to him.
He couldn’t play, but he still needed it.
Prince is working towards a master’s degree with an emphasis in Positive Coaching, which he plans to earn in Dec. 2013. From there, the future is uncertain.
He has started applying for jobs, but with little success. For a guy with relatively little coaching experience and a short and abrupt playing career, the job market is unforgiving. Despite the early failures, though, he continues to send out resumes.
“I’m putting my name in the hat at a few different places, trying to see what pops up. Hopefully,” Prince says, stopping to glance up toward the heavens, “somebody will take a chance and see what I can do.”
Meanwhile, Gomez plans to start pharmacy school at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, this fall. If Prince doesn’t land a job nearby, this will mean significant time apart for the couple. Maybe even years.
It isn’t an ideal situation, but it’s one that the couple has accepted. Their careers are worth it, and their relationship will survive it.
Both are ready, bracing for the hit.
As Columbia fades in the rearview mirror, Prince can no longer afford to dwell on the play that ended his career. Instead, his life is filled with new challenges.
He knows what will come with a career in coaching. There will be long nights, many spent in hotel rooms away from loved ones. Jobs will not be guaranteed. Tough losses will be magnified.
It’s a difficult life, but one his coaches firmly believe he can excel in.
“I knew when I recruited him that he was going to be special, and he hasn’t let me down,” Ford says.
Even after everything – a golden moment, a hit that changed his life, an air mattress in a dark, lonely office – Prince refuses to stay down.
The game he loves keeps hitting him, and Prince keeps standing up.
“To be so close yet so far away, it hurts,” Prince says. His eyes glisten. The pain is written on his face.
“But I still have to have football somehow part of my life. I wouldn’t be here without it.”