COLUMBIA — Eric Waters lay on the soggy turf, his mind racing as he stared at the dark, dank sky above.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
His lower back hurt terribly, and while his brain told his body to move, his limbs refused to listen.
Waters was living every football players worst nightmare. A moment earlier, he had caught a short pass. Then he was hit hard in his lower back, landed awkwardly and lost feeling in part of his body.
A crowd of 70,000 had filled Memorial Stadium on the late afternoon of Oct. 13 to watch the Missouri Tigers play top-ranked Alabama. Except now the fans were quietly watching coaches, teammates and trainer Rex Sharp huddle around Waters.
I was scared, Waters says, a glint of panic remaining in his eyes. And Im like, Rex, I cant move.
Waters had some sensation on his left side but couldnt even wiggle the toes on his right foot, let alone stand. He was carefully placed on a stretcher and as he was taken off the field, Waters heard someone tell him to give the crowd a thumbs up.
My thumb was really shaking, Waters says. I could barely get it up there. But I wanted everybody to know I was going to be OK and would be back on the field.
Thus began a four-hour period at the hospital that would drastically change Waters outlook on life. He underwent multiple tests, worrying about his future until the feeling slowly returned to his leg and a doctor happily told him it was only a muscle strain, not paralysis.
The scare, as well as the outpouring of support he receive, accelerated Waters journey from a temperamental young man to an adult within the course of a month.
Hes not even close to the way he was, says senior fullback Jared McGriff-Culver, Waters best friend on the team. Hes like a brand-new kid.
Eric Waters used to hear it all the time from position coach Andy Hill.
I had that look on my face, like I was mad at the world, Waters says. In reality, I wasnt.
But theres no doubt Waters had a tendency to get distracted, internalize problems and let them affect his mood. Nobody understood this better than McGriff-Culver.
You know your younger brother, you can look at him and know exactly what hes thinking and bust out laughing? McGriff-Culver said. We had that connection at first.
Waters didnt open up to many teammates besides McGriff-Culver. They discussed problems at school, or girls, not unlike most college freshmen and sophomores.
But even football had its frustrating elements. A three-star rated tight end out of Mansfield, Texas, Waters spent his first two seasons playing very little behind All-American tight end Michael Egnew. Waters finally seized the starting job last spring but suffered a torn MCL and a partial tear of the meniscus in his knee.
He felt like he was letting himself and teammates down, McGriff-Culver says.
Still, Waters returned for the start of his junior season with the rehab help of Sharp.
Waters was being used more as a blocker this year, so when he finally got the chance to make a play through the air against Alabama, he was determined to make the most of it, even with Mizzou headed to a 42-10 loss. Then came the fateful play.
When Waters arrived at the Missouri Orthopaedic Institute, he felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up when he heard the doctors say they had to slice off his jersey and shoulder pads.
It was a rough night, Waters says. But I had a lot of good people taking care of me. I was like, Just get me back to Rex.
The worst, Waters says, was the computed tomography, or CT scan, which detects soft tissue and muscle problems. Waters is 6 feet 4, 240 pounds, and he ached as he lay on the hard, flat plastic board.
But then he noticed the unbelievable calm displayed by his mother, who made the trip from Texas with his father to see the game.
Im more emotional than she is, Waters says, She was just like Its going to be all right.
Another indication Waters had that he would be OK was a bit of fate he was staying in the same room as he did months ago following his knee injury.
It gave me some reassurance that Ive been here before, Waters says, and Ive come back from this situation before.
Finally, between 12:30 and 1 a.m., a doctor told Waters he only had a slight muscle strain. He regained feeling in his right foot and was told he could leave the hospital in the morning.
I didnt sleep much at all, Waters says. No matter what position I was in, I was always uncomfortable. I was flat on my back, too much pain. I lifted up and it hurt. I probably slept 30 minutes the whole night.
McGriff-Culver, who had been exchanging text messages with Waters parents throughout the night, was on the way to the hospital that morning when he was surprised to see Waters in the hallway of the Missouri Athletic Training Complex. The two embraced.
He was in a lot of pain, McGriff-Culver says. But he was all smiles.
Not only did Waters worst fear never materialize, he resumed practicing within a week. He not only felt fortunate, but grateful.
It hit me that God and everybody else is really watching over me, Waters says.
Stacks of well-wishing letters from Alabama fans, no less started flowing his way.
To this day, I still receive Get Well Soon cards from Alabama fans, he said. I have a stack of them, about a good six inches tall, of just Alabama fans and people from all over the SEC telling me to get well soon.
There were so many more people on my side than I thought. I started to see the lighter side of things.
In the weeks since, McGriff-Culver has noticed a change in Waters. When he steps on the field these days, hes all smiles, all enthusiasm.
He realizes (football) will only last for so much longer, McGriff-Culver says, so he needs to have fun doing it.
And whenever something bothers him, he takes it as it comes.
Hill, who used to tease Waters about his angry expressions, was more measured about Waters progress in his attitude.
Some days are better than others, Hill said. But hes had a lot of good days since that time.
I do think hes really had, this entire fall and season, a real shining light in his personality, and theres a lot of things hes been real positive about. He feels like hes contributing in a positive way.
Waters, who has not missed a game since the injury, is determined not to lose his newfound perspective. Thats why before every game, he posts one of the letters a picture drawn by a 5-year old girl from Virginia in his locker.
It lets you know that people out there support you, even though theyre not a part of the Mizzou family, Waters says. To know that a 5-year-old girl who probably knows absolutely nothing about football drew me a picture, that really meant a lot to me. Its just another driving factor to play my hardest and work my hardest in practice.
Waters also has another reminder of the night that changed his perspective. He is confident the Tigers will wear their black jerseys for their home finale Saturday against Syracuse, just like they did against Alabama.
And Waters says he will wear his same black jersey too, even though it was cut at the hospital. Replacing it wouldnt do much, Waters says, because the stitched-up version constantly reminds him that adversity can strike at any time.
You know what? Im going to wear that jersey with pride, Waters says. It definitely represents something significant that happened in my college career. It shows that no matter what kind of adversity hits you, you can make it right back, playing on the field.