ST. LOUIS – There were days when Jeremy Maclin didn’t want to get up. Every day was dark.
Maclin thought his football career was over. And it hadn’t even started yet.
The expectations for Maclin, as a true freshman in 2006, were enormous. The Missouri coaching staff fell in love with the way he dazzled for Kirkwood High School, catching 41 passes for 1,042 yards and 11 touchdowns his senior year.
His freshman year at Missouri was supposed to be big.
But then Maclin tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee during 7-on-7 drills in late July, and 2006 never happened.
“There’s not very many injuries that are worse than that,” Maclin said. “I was this close to not ever playing football again.”
But his family wouldn’t let him quit. His coaches wouldn’t let him. Most of all, his teammates wouldn’t let him.
He was inspired. He entered intense rehab. He became a gym rat. He wanted to come back bigger, stronger, faster than before.
He worked so hard to get back on the field that the doctors cleared him to play late in the 2006 season. But the coaches didn’t want to risk it. They knew getting him back at 100 percent for 2007 would be worth the wait.
On Saturday, against Illinois, Maclin’s career officially began.
Maclin returned the opening kickoff for 17 yards to the Tigers’ 22-yard line. It was a modest, if not forgettable play. But after all the nerves running through his body, at least he could breathe again. It had been two years – since Thanksgiving Day of 2005 – that he had played in an actual game. And now he was playing in his hometown with his whole family watching, waiting.
“Right after the opening kickoff I was like ‘I can do this. I can do this,’” he said.
Then it was the middle of the first quarter and the offense had just finished a drive that had gone backward and ended with a blocked punt that was scooped up by the Illini and returned for a touchdown. The Tigers desperately needed a spark. Anything.
Maclin was there to give it to them. He took the ball on an end-around, and after fumbling it and scooping it back up, ran through the heart of the Illini defense for a 29-yard gain.
The Tigers would score a touchdown seven plays later. They never trailed again.
Maclin’s day had only started. Early in the third quarter he caught an 18-yard pass from Chase Daniel along the left sideline to get the Tigers into scoring position. The very next play he caught his first touchdown pass of his college career, making a 180 spin in the air and corralling the ball onto his right shoulder before walking into the end zone.
“Chase put the ball in a perfect location so I wouldn’t get hit by the safety,” he said. “And I just felt the end zone after that.”
He felt the end zone again the next time he touched the ball. This time it was off a 66-yard punt return. A return where he weaved through the first line of blockers, froze a defender with a stutter step and outraced the last line of defense to the goal line.
“You see how smooth he is,” MU coach Gary Pinkel said. “Jeremy Maclin is a big-play player. He’ll just get better and better.”
The punt return gave the Tigers a 37-13 lead. They would hang on to win 40-34 after a furious Illinios comeback.
Following the game, the Tigers learned that Danario Alexander, the Tigers’ No. 1 slot receiver, had dislocated his wrist and will be out for at least a month.
There wasn’t too much panic. Maclin is his backup.
“I’m just glad that I had the support behind me as far as trainers go, coaches, teammates go,” he said. “That I can bounce back from that (injury), do the rehab, and get back to where I am now.”