CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Ross Cockrell heard his leg snap before he felt it. He heard himself screaming “my leg is broken” before he realized it was him screaming.
Few injuries in the history of the Carolina Panthers stand out more than the one the 27-year-old cornerback out of Duke suffered last year during training camp. It was such a graphic moment for players and staff that coach Ron Rivera called off the remaining few minutes of practice.
“It was kind of an out-of-body experience,” Cockrell said. “I didn’t realize I was screaming. I didn’t realize I was saying anything. I just knew my body wasn’t right.”
None ripped the emotions publicly more than when Cockrell’s left leg accidentally was caught underneath wide receiver Torrey Smith near the end zone, breaking his tibia and fibula. Defensive coordinator Eric Washington immediately called players together for a prayer and soon afterward, defensive backs dedicated the season to him.
The aftershock quickly spread through the Charlotte community where Cockrell grew up.
“It was tough,” said Charlotte Latin head coach Justin Hardin, Cockrell’s position coach in high school. “It was so great for our Latin community to see Ross come to Charlotte and have a chance to play for his hometown. Everyone was so excited for him, and it was heartbreaking for us.
“A credit to Ross, he’s been incredibly resilient through this whole thing.”
There’s happy ending to this story. Cockrell is almost fully rehabilitated and back on the field competing as the Panthers begin a three-day mandatory minicamp Tuesday. He’s optimistic he can be a factor when the team returns to Spartanburg, South Carolina, for camp as a nickel back or corner, just as he was a year ago.
But it took a lot of sweat, pain and time to get here.
“I had to learn to walk again,” Cockrell said. “Completely learn how to walk again. It was a lot of pain.”
Learning to walk
Cockrell was in sweat pants and on crutches the first time Hardin saw him after the injury. About three weeks later, he was walking with a limp. About three weeks after that, the limp was gone.
Cockrell never complained, but Hardin knew he was hurting.
“Ross has a quiet toughness that people don’t know,” Hardin said. “You could tell he was having some pain, but he was going to work hard to recover as fast as possible.”
The surgery involved inserting a titanium rod with screws into Cockrell’s leg. He was up moving the day after and was off crutches completely in “two or three months.”
“Trusting your leg,” Cockrell said when asked about the toughest part of the rehab. “It’s hard to explain. It’s a lot.”
That pain didn’t compare to what Cockrell experienced immediately after the break and while team trainer Ryan Vermillion and his staff temporarily set the leg before moving him.
“After you get over that initial shock, you’ve just got to breathe, because there’s nothing that can be done,” Cockrell said. “They told me I would be OK.”
Cockrell found strength in his family during the recovery. He also found it rehabbing last fall on a field adjacent to where his high school team practiced.
“I think that gave him some comfort,” Hardin said. “He was out on the field with no shoes on and a big smile on his face, but also focused. That probably helped him mentally through his healing process.”
The Panthers signed Cockrell to a two-year, $6.8 million deal in March 2018 to push cornerback James Bradberry for a starting cornerback spot. They were familiar with him, having watched him play in high school and Duke, where he was a two-time first-team all-ACC selection.
Rivera immediately noted Cockrell’s “competitive nature.”
That played a role in Cockrell’s return.
“He’s not the most vocal guy, but he is a very, very fierce competitor,” Hardin said. “He just has a toughness that special athletes have and he’s going to do whatever it takes to play football in the NFL.”
Hardin saw that when Cockrell returned six interceptions for touchdowns his junior year at Charlotte Latin. He also saw it in track when Cockrell won state titles in the 100 and 400 meters.
He called on Cockrell last fall to share with his team before practice what drives him.
“He just talked about effort, and doing the little things right,” Hardin said. “And also about holding yourself accountable. Ross, he’s a very unique person, very smart, very intelligent. He’s a pro for a reason.”
Rivera has seen that in the comeback of a player defensive lineman Kawann Short dubbed the “silent assassin.”
“It’s good to have him back out there,” Rivera said during the voluntary offseason workouts. “You saw him tentative at first. But as he started getting more and more comfortable, you could see him starting not to worry about it.
“I’m excited for him because I know he’s worked very hard to put himself back in this position.”
Cockrell still hasn’t watched video of his injury. He’s focused on that “I’m back moment” that he hasn’t had yet as he battles for a spot behind Bradberry and second-year starting corner Donte Jackson.
“I’m still getting over it,” Cockrell said of the injury. “It’s something that is a very long process. … I still have high hopes. Obviously, Donte and JB played well last year.
“But there’s still room on this defense for playmakers. If I can show I can make plays … they’ll make a place for me.”