For 12 weeks last summer, Chris Harrell carried a cell-phone-sized battery pack on his hip. The battery was wired to a series of electrodes that dangled from his neck, bombarding him with ultrasound waves.
Wherever the senior Penn State safety went, the strange apparatus went with him. To lunch. To dinner. To class. Harrell even wore it in his sleep.
It was tough adjusting at first, he said. I'd be walking around with all these electrodes going on in my neck and everyone would ask about it. Some people thought it was a heart monitor. Some people thought it was some kind of science thing.
In fact, the electrodes were helping heal a cracked bone. Harrell had been injured in spring practice, forcing him to take a medical redshirt. It was a difficult ordeal, but he persevered, confident he would eventually be rewarded for walking around campus looking as though he had just been assimilated by the Borg.
His rehab now behind him, it's looking like he was right. Harrell returned to full-contact drills at the start of spring practice. He was under no restrictions and was able to do everything his fellow defensive backs did, his speed and intensity undiminished and his appreciation for the game enhanced by his inactivity last year.
Everything is full-go, Harrell said. I took a long time off to let the bone heal properly. All I wear right now is a protective pad on my neck that will probably be gone after the spring. Everything is full speed.
An even bigger payoff awaits this fall when he returns to the lineup. Harrell is the most likely candidate to replace Andrew Guman as Penn State's starting free safety. Guman was an underrated player and one of the keys to the team's defensive resurgence in 2004. Harrell looks to be a more-than adequate replacement. He stands 6-foot-2, 215 pounds and has even more experience than Guman did when he took over the position last season.
Harrell had been enjoying a fine career before his injury. He had made 18 starts the previous two years - 11 at hero as a sophomore and seven at free safety the following season. He was expecting to challenge Calvin Lowry for the starting hero spot last fall, but in an instant those plans changed.
It was early in spring practice, the first day of full-contact drills, and Terrance Phillips was headed toward him after catching a pass on a slant pattern. Harrell saw a chance to make a big hit and slammed into the wideout as hard as he could.
The collision left him in pain, but Harrell didn't think he was seriously injured until the next day when his neck began to hurt while he was lifting weights. X-rays revealed he had hairline cracks in a bone in his neck. It was a frightening discovery.
When it's a neck, you start to think about whether you're going to be able to play football again, Harrell said. That was definitely going through my mind. The doctors told me that if I tried to play any earlier than [this spring] it would definitely be the end of my career.
That's when he learned about the electrodes. In the past, such devices were used in the treatment of torn muscles. But advances have led to the development of new devices that promote bone growth. Harrell wore his wires for three months and was told to take it easy. He didn't need surgery, and he would be able to take part in noncontact drills in the fall, but there was no chance he would be playing again until 2005.
In retrospect, Harrell's redshirt might have been a blessing, both for him and the team. Forced to sit out Penn State's live practices last fall, he focused on his fitness, adding 10 pounds of muscle without sacrificing any speed. And because he was unable to work on the physical part of his game, he concentrated on technique.
In addition, his absence helped thin an overcrowded secondary. Harrell, who preserved his redshirt options by taking part in 11 games as a true freshman, was able to sit out without exhausting his final year of eligibility. And because he sat out, defensive coordinator Tom Bradley can now hand the free safety position to a proven veteran rather than appointing a newcomer.
It's lucky for us as it turned out because Andy had a sensational year and Chris got to rest that neck and get that thing healthy, Bradley said. That's the thing for this defense, for Chris and everyone else - you have to stay healthy. ... We don't have enough depth yet that we can afford to lose many guys.
Harrell appreciates the opportunity he's been given. This fall, he will be part of an all-senior secondary, potentially one of the best of the Paterno era. The Nittany Lions are going to be able to do a lot of things as far as shutting people down and getting a few turnovers he said.
Even the mundane responsibilities, like practice and classwork, have come to seem more meaningful after everything he's been through.
You kind of take things for granted, Harrell said. You think of football as a part of what you do, and to have it taken away from you makes you take a step back. It made me think about how important this was for me and how important school was and everything that surrounds this program. I had a chance to watch the game from a spectator's point of view. I got to see how much I love Penn State and everything around it.