COLUMBIA — Zack Bailey knew something was wrong.
It was the final play of the third quarter on a rainy December day in Columbia. South Carolina was playing Akron in a game that was stuck at the end of the football season after Hurricane Florence forced the cancellation of a game in September.
Bailey, a 6-6, 214-pound offensive lineman, was putting the finishing touches on his final college season.
Then it happened.
"I felt the pop, I felt everything,” the USC graduate from Summerville said. “I knew something had happened, so I just kept rolling.”
He came to a stop but couldn’t get up. His NFL dreams were now in serious jeopardy. And he had to lay there, wet turf mingling with his sweat, and try not to realize it.
“As soon as I saw (trainer) Clint Haggard come on the field, I knew. I had already started walking toward the training room,” Bailey's girlfriend, Carson Kirk, remembered. “I met him at the X-ray room. He wasn’t crying … he had a pleasant face on.”
A bone in Bailey's right leg was broken. Not good news, but it could have been so much worse. The fractured bone was his fibula, a non-weight-bearing bone. Had it been his tibia, or a ligament tear, Bailey wouldn’t have been able to do what he did Thursday, which is work out in front of representatives from 32 NFL teams at USC’s Pro Day.
Bailey and Kirk have always looked at the positive. In this case, they didn’t have much other choice.
“We didn’t map out the pro day or the combine. He has a whole life to live past football,” Kirk said. “I’d rather heal up a broken leg where he can play ball with his kids one day than rush it and only do it for this day.”
A lineman known for his versatility with the Gamecocks — he played three of the five spots on the line during his career, including center as a freshman — Bailey was forced to accept a different method of training. For almost eight weeks, he had his lower leg cocooned in plaster and propped on a scooter.
Stationed in Nashville where he could work out with several other draft hopefuls and be near his agent, Bailey could do some cardio, some lifting – but couldn’t run.
“You’re dealt the cards that are dealt to you. I had to go out and make sure they knew I was healthy again,” Bailey said Thursday at Williams-Brice Stadium. “Sitting on the sidelines isn’t something I do.”
He attended the NFL Combine in Indianapolis several weeks ago for interviews and the tests he could do, then reported for USC’s Pro Day where he could run. A media-timed consensus had Bailey’s 40-yard-dash time in the 5.2-seconds range (exact times were not released).
Whatever the numbers, Bailey was out there moving around, down 12 pounds from his playing weight against Akron, the leg good as new.
“I thought he moved extremely well today. He’s a big, powerful man, played a lot of football for us,” USC coach Will Muschamp said. “Frustrated for him to not be able to perform at the combine, and be on that stage, because you only get one opportunity, but very proud of Zack and what he’s done for South Carolina.”
Bailey wrapped up a long day by interviewing with NFL teams (Cincinnati and Dallas were hanging around him after drills were done). He said he hasn’t paid much attention to draft boards since he knew not being able to fully perform at the combine would set him back, but hopes that his Pro Day gets folks re-engaged.
Kirk, who works in Columbia, and Bailey haven’t made plans to move just yet and are waiting for what the NFL tells them. They’ll head to Charleston for the draft, near Bailey’s Summerville circle of support, and wait for a phone call.
He’ll handle it like he did the injury. Low-key, chin up, ready for the next step.