CLEMSON — The clock was ticking. Amari Rodgers' targeted return date of Sept. 7 was fewer than 48 hours away, and he had cleared every hurdle except for one since suffering a torn ACL in his right knee March 25.
He grabbed his phone and pulled up coach Dabo Swinney's number. "Coach, I promise you," he wrote. "I'm ready. You can trust me." The Clemson wide receiver hit send.
Swinney, by his own admission, had been looking for reasons not to play the junior against Texas A&M. Rodgers had gotten injured less than 170 days earlier, after all. The Tigers had plenty of receiver depth. Why risk it?
Swinney read Rodgers' text and gave in: "I'm like, 'this guy's unbelievable.' "
The coach isn't alone in that sentiment. About midway through the second quarter against the Aggies, quarterback Trevor Lawrence found Rodgers for a completion. That there was no gain on the catch was subsumed by the gravity of the moment.
"Pass complete to Amari Rodgers!" the public address announcer boomed, with an extra hint of excitement, and Death Valley roared. Rodgers was back. Right on time.
"Everyone's just in awe of what he's been able to do," Swinney said.
Everybody, it seems, except for Rodgers himself. In the wake of his surgery, he made a bold declaration to his mother and father: He wanted to be back for the Texas A&M game.
His parents were supportive but cautious, Rodgers said. There isn't a ton of precedence for that quick of a turnaround from an ACL tear. But Rodgers, who recorded 55 receptions for 575 yards and four touchdowns last season, trusted his mindset.
Instead of wallowing in self-pity, Rodgers dedicated himself to rehab and treatment twice a day.
"That's not normal," he said, matter-of-factly.
His support system helped. He caught up with old friends he met during his recruiting process who had suffered the same injury, gathering information and gaining confidence. A text from former Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, who has worked back from two torn ACLs and now stars for the Houston Texans, was encouraging.
Clemson, meanwhile, approached the start of the season without Rodgers in the immediate game plan. College football can be cruel to the injured, with lost starting spots claimed by capable and hungry backups. The next-man-up mindset that sustains programs can also result in stalled careers and broken dreams.
Rodgers opted against self-doubt. He kept the Texas A&M game in the back of his mind, and after Clemson beat Georgia Tech, 52-14, in the opener — during which 13 Tigers not named Amari Rodgers caught passes — he showed up to practice Sept. 3 ready to go.
He walked away from that practice feeling good, but sore. He lied on the ground for a few minutes, his body reminding his mind how it feels to play football, a sport of sanctioned violence. His knee felt fine, though, and Rodgers practiced again the next day. Again, no issues. He texted Swinney on Sept. 5 — two days before the Aggies game.
Rodgers was limited last Saturday — he finished with two receptions for six yards — but Swinney expects a larger role for Rodgers going forward. He had played primarily in the slot during the spring before the injury, in between the starry duo of Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins, both of whom stand 6-foot-4.
"Even though he's not as tall," Swinney said of the 5-10 Rodgers. "He plays big. He's physical, he breaks tackles.
"There's nothing Amari can't do."
That includes, now, returning from an injury that takes others several more months to heal from. He appeared at the top of The Hill at 3:30 p.m. on Sept, 7, surrounded by his teammates, rumbling down a bit slower than normal.
He'll have to wear a brace around his right knee all season, which he isn't crazy about, but it's part of the healing process.
He was pulled after his first reception, which included a funny landing, prompting concern on the sideline. Rodgers assured everyone he was fine and returned to the game, kicking off what he hopes to be a productive campaign.
Afterwards he found Swinney. He had another message. This time he wanted to deliver it in person.
"Thank you," he told his coach. "for believing in me."