Evan Pryor hadn’t played football in nearly a year.
Yet here the Ohio State running back was, in the opening week of preseason camp, lining up in the backfield ready to run a wheel route. He broke on his route, ran down the right sideline and turned left to find the ball. It felt like deja vu.
Last August, Pryor tore the patellar tendon in his left knee, on the same route. This time, after getting hit to the ground, Pryor got up, ran back to the huddle and met running backs coach Tony Alford. He had a message for him: “I’m good.”
“I said, What do you mean you’re good?’” Alford said. “He said, ‘You know that was the same play I got hurt.’ I said, ‘I know.’ In his mind it was like, ‘OK this is where I got hurt, I just did it and now I’m good.’”
Pryor needed that confirmation. In the past year, Pryor has been through some of his darkest moments. There were tears shed, days alone in his bed playing video games while his teammates were at practice, long talks with his parents, rehab and more.
Now, back on the football field, he’s working to put all of that behind him. It’s why the wheel route in practice was such a special play.
“I need to get roughed up, hit the ground; I need to run wheel routes the same place I got hurt,” Pryor said. “It’s a situation I want to put behind me so I can put my best foot forward.”
Ohio State is easing Pryor back into the fold, giving him time to get adjusted to the game he loves again before putting more responsibility on him.
While he would love to be thrown into the fire, he trusts the coaches’ plan for him. He’s just grateful to be on the field.
“It was hard, but it makes you not take things like this for granted,” he said. “Now I’m out there. Everything I do, I do hard because I know what it’s like to have it taken from you.”
On the day before his surgery last year, Pryor spent time at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, praying on the spot where he got hurt. When he finished, he hobbled on his crutches over to TreVeyon Henderson. They talked for a little bit before Pryor went home. It wasn’t an easy time for Pryor, who woke up the next morning in tears.
“I was going through it,” Pryor said.
That injury took a major opportunity away from Pryor last season. A four-star recruit in the Class of 2021, he got 23 touches as a freshman, showing promise in brief opportunities. Before he went down last summer, he was on the upswing on the Ohio State depth chart, even in a crowded backfield.
With Henderson and Miyan Williams back, it looked like Pryor was going to be the third player on the depth chart — the one who got most, if not all, of the second-half blowout reps and the first one up in the main rotation if there was an injury. There would have been plenty of chances last season.
But in one second, all of that went away. Instead of being a potential impact reserve, he was preparing for surgery.
“Everything I did that whole year was to work my way up, but it is what it is,” Pryor said. “God does things for a reason.”
One of the first people he saw after his surgery was Alford.
“I woke up looking at coach Alford looking me right in my face,” Pryor said with a laugh.
Pryor couldn’t remember the conversation they had because he was still coming off the anesthesia from the surgery, but it meant a lot to him for Alford to be there. For Alford, who has talked a lot about supporting players’ mental health, he was worried more about Pryor than he was about how he would replace him in Ohio State’s rotation.
That continued even as running back after running back went down with an injury.
“These kids put their heart and soul into this thing,” Alford said. “It’s a very important thing to them so you want to make sure that you’re taking care of their mental state.”
After his surgery, Pryor went to stay with his parents, Inid and Erik Pryor. They found a place in Columbus temporarily so they could be there for their son during his recovery.
He was in bed for about a week until they let him get on crutches and get back to the football facility and around his teammates. He couldn’t practice and wouldn’t play against Notre Dame, but just being around again was a breath of fresh air for him.
“There were some rough days for him, as there would be for anyone,” Alford said. “That’s where we talk about the brotherhood and the family atmosphere that we’ve all got to lift one another up.”
For two months, Pryor wasn’t allowed to bend his left leg. For anything.
“If I had to go poop or whatever it was, my leg had to be straight,” Pryor said. “It was cool being in bed, but it was hard.”
He laid in bed with his leg propped up on an ice machine and a video game controller in hand. His game of choice was the “NBA 2K” basketball game, which allowed him to play a created player’s career. He decided against playing the football game, “Madden,” because that’s usually played with his teammates. In those moments, they were usually at the facility practicing, preparing for the opener against Notre Dame.
“Those were dark days,” Pryor said. “I can definitely say it was hard going through that, a 19-year-old, two weeks away from the first game, playing Notre Dame. It’s hard for you.”
Other than video games, Pryor’s focus on school helped him pass the time. A journalism major, he has dreams of being a broadcaster when his time playing football is over. He was able to take an internship at a CBS affiliate station in Chicago while sidelined.
What I learned at Ohio State’s first practice, from QB and DB battles to a position switch
The time away was good for Pryor from a personal standpoint, but he missed the game he’d been playing all his life. The way Pryor handled the last year was impressive to Alford.
“He stayed engaged. He’s never bitched or moaned, crossed an eye or had a thing to say,” Alford said. “He just keeps coming back and saying give me more. He’s very valuable in a lot of different ways.”
He returned to 100 percent in July and feels like the previous version of himself, one who was one of the hottest names in preseason camp last year. After a year off, he spent the summer working on his explosiveness and agility. He wanted to come back to the field and make people miss with ease. He looked the part in the first open practice of camp.
That ability never left him, though. It’s more of a running back mentality that he has to keep.
It’s hard to judge a running back when the team is playing in shorts with no pads. Physicality is a big part of the job, and Pryor is eager to get back to it. He has to take a hit, get up and go back to the huddle like he did on the wheel route. That’s when he’ll know he’s back to his old self.
“My first day out there I was scared out of my pants. Watching every step you take, thinking a lot,” Pryor said. “Going back for Day 2, I felt more comfortable. Just knowing everything is going to be OK. I took the right steps in my rehab, and recovery process, to not worry about it at all.”
(Photo: Michael Allio / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)