D.J. May knew something was wrong.
In all of his years playing football, he had never felt like this. He had been fortunate enough to avoid serious injuries, often taking hits, but always getting up.
“I was really lucky,” he said.
That good fortune made this feeling all the more unfamiliar. The sophomore running back had torn his left pectoral muscle while working out a few weeks ago. After it happened, he walked over to the training room and grabbed an ice pack.
May walked back into the gym and sat against a wall, watching his teammates finish their workout. He hadn’t yet seen a doctor or a trainer, but he says he didn’t need to. As the other running backs continued to lift, May knew he couldn’t. His season was over before it began.
This season was supposed to be the next step for May, a year after he led the team with 374 yards and 4.9 yards-per-carry as a true freshman. It was supposed to land him in the end zone, not a redshirt.
After that kind of blow, how do you come to terms with the fact that everything you worked for has been sidetracked for another year? How can you watch other running backs continue to work and climb the depth chart, knowing that it should have been you?
How quickly can you turn that frustration into something positive for you and your team?
For May, it happened almost instantly.
“It sucks. It’s always going to suck, but you can’t keep thinking like that. You still got to get better somehow,” May said. “So I have to work on my legs, get in the film room and help the new guys. That’s really my role now.”
If May were to hand out a business card, it would no longer say, “D.J. May, Running Back.”
It’s time to add in a few extra words:
“D.J. May, Running Back Mentor.”
“D.J. May, Running Back Coach.”
With true freshmen Omar Stover and Joshua Tapscott both vying for carries this fall, May is taking on a new set of responsibilities. Last year, he and Shaun Wick were the true freshmen trying to find their way. And as May recalls, it wasn’t always an easy transition to make.
Now, he’s determined to provide Stover and Tapscott with the veteran presence he never had.
“Last year it was just me and Shaun kind of on our own trying to figure everything out. But now we’ve been here for a year, so we’ve got to help them,” May said. “I’ve got to be a coach to those guys and help them fit in.”
That means dissecting film with the young backs, helping them read the field and memorize plays. It means helping them make the transition to a college campus and a new lifestyle.
It means putting the team ahead of himself, at least for a little while.
“It’s a big loss,” senior running back Brandon Miller said, referring to May’s injury. “He’s a great player, and we’re going to miss him a lot. But with any position, you have to plug the next guy in and keep going. You can’t really look back.”
The Cowboys haven’t. They have no shortage of backs, with Miller, Stover, Tapscott and Tedder Easton all competing for carries.
As for May, he’s already looking ahead. Standing in the lobby of the Rochelle Athletics Center last week, May’s left arm was folded against his chest in a black sling.
His right arm held a football.
The ball was secure — it was home — and it seemed as if May could have put his head down and exploded through the line, taking defenders with him, at any moment.
Despite the sling and the redshirt season it represented, May still looked like a running back.
“I’m holding on to it right now,” May said, glancing down at the football. “I have to keep this.”