It was a cold, rainy December afternoon in a half-filled Williams-Brice Stadium when Zack Bailey’s decorated four-year career at South Carolina came to an abrupt end in a meaningless game against Akron.
The former Summerville High School standout had entertained thoughts of leaving Columbia a year earlier and had considered entering the NFL Draft as a junior. But the 6-5, 310-pound guard who had been a mainstay on the Gamecocks' offensive line since his freshman season, had decided to return for his senior year at South Carolina.
When an Akron player rolled up on his leg, Bailey knew the injury was serious and wondered what his future might hold.
While Bailey’s broken leg probably scared off most teams in last spring’s NFL Draft, it didn’t stop him from signing with Tampa Bay and making the Buccaneers' 53-man roster.
Tampa Bay faces the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night at Bank of America Stadium in a nationally televised game on the NFL Network.
While a broken leg might have been devastating news for some players so close to the NFL Draft, Bailey just shrugged it off and wanted to know when he could start rehabilitation.
“When I was in the training room that afternoon and the doctors told me the news I was pretty much like, 'OK, now I’ve got to do everything I can to be ready to go when the combine and pro day rolls around,'" Bailey said. “After the surgery, I wanted to start rehab the next day. I knew God had a plan for me.”
Bailey spent the next four months building up the muscles around his lower leg and ankle. He was invited to the NFL Combine, but wasn’t able to do any of the agility drills.
“I think that was the most frustrating part of it,” Bailey said. “You work so hard to get to that point, and when the time comes, you can’t do it because you have an injury. It's something you can't control.”
The 6-6, 314-pound offensive lineman from Summerville hopes to be ready to participate in the NFL Combine that begins Feb. 26.
A month later, at South Carolina’s pro day, Bailey was finally healthy enough to do all the drills in front of NFL scouts.
“I thought I had a good day,” Bailey said. “I had been testing everything the week before, and everything felt fine. I didn’t feel like I was tentative. I think in the back of your mind you are always going to be cautious after an injury, but I was able to turn and plant and do the things I couldn’t do during the combine.”
Bailey had been considered a late-round prospect going into the draft, and when his phone didn’t ring after the third day he knew that the injury might have been the issue with NFL coaches and general managers.
“Honestly, I couldn’t tell you if that’s why I didn’t get drafted or not,” Bailey said. “I know it’s hard to draft a guy when he’s got a broken leg and his job is to put his foot into the ground and be in the trenches every day. I’m sure it was a giant red flag to most teams because they didn’t know how I was going to be after the surgery.”
Fewer than 30 minutes after the final player was selected in the draft, the Buccaneers called Bailey and invited him to training camp.
He signed immediately.
“Tampa Bay called and I didn’t give it a second thought; I said ‘yes’ on the spot,’” Bailey said. “It’s every little boy’s dream to play in the NFL, and I knew I had to make the most of this opportunity.”
Summerville's Zack Bailey wasn't drafted but will get his NFL opportunity.
Bailey’s injury might have been a blessing in disguise, according to Summerville head football coach Joe Call.
“You could tell that Zack had a chip on his shoulder when he didn’t get drafted,” Call said. “I think it made him work that much harder to make the team. There were so many NFL teams that wanted him after the draft that he was able to pick the one that was the best fit for him.
"Tampa was in need of a guard and I think that helped him make the team. He had to fight for his spot on the roster, but I’m not surprised he made the team. Bailey is so big and athletic, I’m confident he can stick in the league.”
Bailey said he hasn’t had that ‘welcome to the NFL moment’ yet, but practicing against Bucs defensive linemen Ndamukong Suh and Vita Vea have certainly given him a taste of what to expect on Sundays.
“The first time I lined up against them, it was a mixture of nerves and excitement,” Bailey said. “As a kid, you are watching these guys on TV, and now you’re lining up against them. There was an awe factor at first. But then reality kicks in, and now you have to block them.”
Bailey figures competing against Suh, a five-time pro bowl selection, every day in practice is only going to make him better.
“It’s a great learning experience; he’s so powerful and has such good technique that you have to bring your A-game every day. If I can learn how to block Ndamukong and Vita consistently on a high level, I should be ready to play against anyone in this league.”
In 2018, just 17 percent of undrafted rookie free agents made NFL rosters. And just because Bailey has made the Bucs’ team doesn’t mean he can become complacent.
“Just because you made the team doesn’t mean that the work stops,” he said. “I’m a free agent, so making the team doesn’t really matter. I’m not a big dollar guy, so they can get rid of me anytime they want. It’s a great sense of accomplishment because it’s been my dream, but there’s still a lot of work left to do because I’ve still got a lot to prove.”