Derek Dooley on Cody Pope's stinger injury
Know your Vols - Cody Pope: Junior, center
All it might have taken was one voice of dissent.
At least one that didn't sound like the voice in Cody Pope's head.
If somebody else had nudged him in the other direction, encouraged him to grind through the numbness and weakness or even made him feel guilty for the struggles of the football team without him, that could have been enough to convince the Tennessee center to tune out the rest and get back on the field last season.
Instead all Pope had was a group of people with his best interests in mind, a collection of family, trainers, specialists and coaches that urged caution above all else. Ultimately that kept him on the sideline for nearly all of his junior season, and with no guarantee the stinger couldn't continue to be a risk for him down the road, it also led to a medical exemption that will end his career with the Vols.
"I honestly wanted somebody to say, 'Hey, Cody, forget your health. Get back out there,' " Pope said in his first interview since suffering the injury against Oregon last September. "I wanted the inner-me to come out in somebody else that wasn't looking out for my best interests and say, 'We want you to come back, you'll be fine.' I really wanted somebody to say that, but everyone was looking out for me.
"I'm glad that they were, but at the same time I wish somebody had because then I could have said, 'He told me I could do it.' Nobody did that, and I really do appreciate that."
That doesn't necessarily mean Pope was thrilled at the time, and certainly there was frustration after opening the season as a starter for two games then being limited to practices in tennis shoes without any contact for the rest of the year.
Those feelings might even have been exaggerated since the term being used to describe his injury isn't often associated with lengthy recovery periods. Clearly Pope's stinger was more severe than most, though, and it cost him the last 11 games of the season after leaving in the first half against the Ducks.
Now about six months out from the injury, there's really nothing about it limiting him in his daily routine now. And with the possibility of additional damage still a factor, Pope and his advisors decided to keep it that way.
"Stinger is kind of a generic term, but for what the injury was it does fit what he had," UT director of sports medicine Jason McVeigh said. "It wasn't a misnomer in that case. Basically a stinger is an injury, generically, that comes out of the neck and goes down the arm. Most of the time you do see a quick return of strength and the numbness goes away, and once they prove those things are back to normal, they're usually able to return.
"In Cody's case it took longer than expected to return on the day of the injury, and then serial evaluations after that showed he had some further symptoms of weakness than you would normally expect. I think it came down to kind of a risk-reward. There were concerns that if he returned, something could happen in the same manner that maybe wouldn't resolve. But nobody ever said he was 100 percent disqualified from playing."
There was also no guarantee Pope would be 100 percent ready to handle the physical nature of the game either, let alone the constant contact required of a lineman.
So what first started as a weekly process of telling himself he would be ready for the next game turned into the slow realization that his days in pads at UT were over. Pope dropped 25 pounds, was able to start running again and even crack some jokes about his retirement.
And finally the voice in his head started echoing with Pope was hearing from everybody else.
"Early on, you don't even want to think about it," Pope said. "You just think about getting back the next week. From week to week ever since it happened, you're constantly thinking about how you'll be better the next week. 'I'm up to 50 percent now, I'll be up to 75 next week and the week after, I'll be back for Georgia.'
"It wasn't like one day I woke up and thought, 'This is over, let's move on.' It was a big deal. It was something that I involved my family with, my trainers, my coaches, everybody, and it was over a long period of time.
"It was what's best for me."