Missouri senior defensive back Kenya Dennis was in his bedroom, playing with his pit-bull puppies, June 21 when trainer Rex Sharp called him on the phone and told him Harold Brantley had been in a horrific car crash.
“As soon as I got that call from Rex, I was in total shock,” Dennis said.
Brantley — a 6-foot-3, 280-pound junior defensive tackle from Hershey, Pa. — was set to enter the 2015 season as the beating heart of the Tigers’ defense in the first season under new coordinator Barry Odom.
Instead, he’ll spend the next year recovering from surgery to repair a broken left tibia, ligament damage in his left knee, several broken ribs and a small crack in his shoulder that required a pin, according to Missouri coach Gary Pinkel.
Brantley was the most experienced player on Missouri’s defensive line, its unquestioned leader and one of the top returning players in the SEC at his position. His loss is a massive blow for the Tigers.
But Brantley’s teammates, including Dennis, weren’t worried about any of that as word of the Father’s Day accident spread like wildfire.
“It was very severe at the time, so at that point we’re just thinking, ‘Man, we hope the surgery (to put a rod in his lower left leg) goes good and we hope Harold survives,’” Dennis said. “Football never crossed our mind at that point. We weren’t worried about whether we would lose Harold for the season or how good the defensive line would be. None of that was important at the time. We were just worried about our brother being safe.”
Brantley, who Pinkel confirmed Wednesday at SEC Media Days would miss the 2015 season, eventually stabilized and was released from the hospital two weeks ago. He still faces knee surgery later this month but is expected to make a full recovery.
“I saw him Monday, and he’s doing better,” Pinkel said. “The good news is that he didn’t have any back or spinal problems. We could be talking about a whole different type of problems than we’re talking about right now. Everything can be repaired that’s happened to him.”
Physically, Brantley faces a long road, but the injuries also took an emotional toll.
Teammates said Brantley had to be tied down in the hospital.
“Obviously, emotionally, it’s been very difficult for him,” Pinkel said. “You kind of have ups and downs. He had a phenomenal spring. He was expected to be one of the best defensive players in the league and also in the nation. The good news is he will be. It’s going to be a year delayed, but we’re going to be positive about all that.”
Pinkel likened the substantial nature of Brantley’s injury to the shredded knee Henry Josey suffered in 2011.
Josey, of course, missed the final two months of that season and the entire 2012 season, but he was a star (and one of the best feel-good stories) of Missouri’s turnaround season in 2013.
Brantley’s teammates weren’t able to visit him until Thursday as he stabilized in intensive care for four days, but none of them doubt his resolve to return and re-emerge as a dominant force.
“It was a huge blow for us,” junior quarterback Maty Mauk said. “Not just as a player, but you’re talking about one of our best leaders — not only on defense, but on our team. (He’s) a guy that was, in my opinion, one of, if not the, hardest worker on our team. …
“We came in together, and we’ve been brothers since day one. It really (stinks) to see this happen to him, but … he’s going to fight and he’s going to be back. … Harold Brantley’s going to come back bigger and stronger than ever and then he’s really going to break out.”
Pinkel said junior Josh Augusta is in line to start with Brantley unavailable. It also opens up more reps for A.J. Logan and some of Missouri’s incoming freshmen.
Asked if losing Brantley’s leadership was as critical as losing his production, Pinkel acknowledged it was a concern “anytime you lose a high-level leadership player.”
“In the spring, he brought tremendous leadership,” Pinkel said. “I was so impressed. He’s a very smart guy and remarkably driven and competitive. Are those losses? Yeah.”
That’s also not what’s important.
“My big thing, honestly, I’m over all that,” Pinkel said. “That happened pretty quick. My big thing is I’m glad he survived it. We wouldn’t be talking about this. It would be insignificant. To think what happened to him and that he had no spinal or neck injury and no head injuries, it’s amazing.”