Every passing game day has been harder and harder for Tennessee wide receiver Justin Hunter to stomach.
Hunter's worst injury before he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee was a dislocated thumb in high school, and he was able to play through that. This, however, has been an entirely different ordeal.
Even when he's not "knee-habbing" with a slew of trainers, watching practice or hanging out with his teammates, Hunter still finds himself immersed in football.
"I try to find other things to do, just try to play the game," Hunter said Tuesday. "If I can't play the game, I play the Xbox by myself sometimes just to try to get my stats up."
There was only one number Hunter had on his mind while he propped himself up on crutches before a horde of reporters after Tuesday's practice, his first interview since tearing up his knee Sept. 17, against at Florida. Asked when he expects to be fully recovered and ready to play football, Hunter had an exact date already prepared.
"Middle of March, around the 16th," Hunter said. "Or something like that."
The sight of Hunter on the sidelines at practice, games and even during a brief moment of ESPN's All-Access documentary that aired last month has been a common fixture since the injury. He's been in all of the wide receiver meetings and team meetings while balancing a hectic rehab schedule that features plenty of stretching, riding on a stationary bike, upper-body weight training and eating.
Hunter said the swelling in the quadriceps muscle above his knee isn't going down as fast as he'd prefer, but his overall rehabilitation is ahead of schedule.
"It's just basically getting my mobility back," Hunter said. "Trying to get straight and everything."
If his rehab continues to progress according to schedule, Hunter will be off the crutches by the end of the month.
"I hate 'em," Hunter said. "I've got to walk to classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays up the Hill. I try to get rides, call the T as much as I can. They're always late so I've got to walk anyway."
Hunter played in just two full games and four plays against Florida, but it was clear he was poised for a special sophomore season. The 314 receiving yards he compiled still rank in the top 15 among SEC receivers and the effect his presence on the field had on others, namely Da'Rick Rogers, has certainly been missed, as the Vols (3-5, 0-5 SEC) have struggled to replicate what they had in the passing game while he was healthy.
His fellow rehab buddy, quarterback Tyler Bray — who is out for at least two more weeks with a broken thumb — has helped provide some companionship on the sidelines, but it hasn't made watching the Vols struggle through a four-game losing streak any easier.
"It's real hard, just sitting on the sidelines and watching," Hunter said. "Sometimes I don't even want to go to the games because I know if I can't help them, it's not way my to do it. I just try to lift them up as best I can and help them out."
His teammates, who often stop to joke with him if he's hanging out by the Haslam Field gate after practice, have certainly appreciated it. So has coach Derek Dooley, who said he expects Hunter to come back an even better receiver than he was previously.
"The first thing I always say is 'How can you improve by not playing?' " Dooley said. "Well, he can improve with his weight-lifting and his physical strength and he can improve in the mental part of the game because there's never a time where you can't work on something to get better as a player.
"Every indication I'm getting is he's recovering well, he's staying around the team, he brings good energy around the guys. That's important."
Hunter said he's talked with coaches who have come back from similar injuries and also reached out to former UT player Eric Berry, who is currently out for the season with the Kansas City Chiefs because of a torn ACL. Though he's only been out for less than two months, he's also served as a source for advice, as safety Brent Brewer, who tore his ACL against South Carolina last Saturday, recently asked him how he felt when he woke up from the surgery.
"Sleepy and drowsy," Hunter said before quickly directing his focus from the past to the future.
"I really think I'll be coming back better than I was before. They really say that my leg will be stronger than it's ever been, so I'm just trying to push to get better.