Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Florida is back in town, and it makes me think of No. 4

The return of the University of Florida to Tuscaloosa this weekend is, naturally, fraught with storylines, whether it's Saban vs. Meyer, the rematch of the last two SEC Championship games, John Brantley-Greg McElroy, Alabama's regular-season winning streak ... or even Daniel Maguire's rematch against the Florida fans who caused him to moon them five years ago.

One storyline that probably won't get much play: Florida's coming back to Tuscaloosa since October 2005, the day fate dealt Tyrone Prothro one of the cruelest blows I've ever witnessed live.

It's hard to think of Tyrone Prothro as one of the greats in Alabama football history. He played barely more than one season in Tuscaloosa, and his career stats — 42 catches, 672 yards and 4 TDs, plus one return TD and one rushing TD — are underwhelming. He wasn't a heralded recruit when he came to 'Bama from Heflin (Cleburne Co.) and probably won't make an appearance in the Bryant Musem, except for ... yeah, this:

What those numbers will never reflect, of course, is how much Tyrone Prothro meant to Alabama, and vice versa. When No. 4 stepped on campus in 2003, he was entering a locker room that, frankly, was broken. Dennis Franchione's departure in 2002, and the subsequent scandal involving Mike Price had damaged the program to a startling degree; Alabama was a national punchline, only a few months removed from a 10-win season.

From a pure football standpoint, it was a team that lacked playmakers, due to probation and bizarre recruiting. Coming into 2003, Alabama's best offensive weapons, in order, were Shaud Williams (forced to carry the football an alarming number of times that year), Brodie Croyle (as brittle as a sand dollar) and ... actually, there wasn't really a third one. It was a team desperately in need of someone with blazing speed on the perimeter, something Prothro possessed but didn't fully harness until the following year (when he was the only returning receiver with experience and the primary kick returner).

In a way, Prothro's career at Alabama is emblematic of that entire period in Alabama football history: tantalizing flashes that ultimately amounted to little. In 2004, Prothro emerged as one of the conference's most exciting players, even earning a spot on the all-SEC team as a kick returner. But he never flourished at wideout, primarily due to the fact that the guy throwing him passes was Spencer Pennington and the guy calling the plays was Mike Shula.
2005 was shaping up as the year Croyle-to-Prothro became one of the go-to combinations in the country. He turned in a dazzling touchdown catch in the opener vs. Middle Tennessee, then made a national name for himself with "The Catch" vs. Southern Miss. He was emerging as the rare football player with explosive talent and a high football IQ: there was one moment in that year's win over Arkansas where Pro, after catching a pass on a third-and-long, actually stopped in the middle of the field, turned his head, found the first down marker and made sure he fought past it. I'd never seen anything like that before, and I'm certain no one wrote about it the next day.
And then, of course, there was his day vs. Florida. The numbers for the day don't really do it justice, but let's try: 5 catches, 134 yards, 2 TDs, a punt return TD that was nullified due to a holding call, and the undying admiration of Alabama fans everywhere. More than that, there seemed to be an intuitive connection between Prothro and quarterback Brodie Croyle; wherever Croyle threw the ball, Prothro went and found it.
Then it happened. I haven't watched the play since I saw it live, won't watch it now and won't ask you to do it, either. In my memory, I still see Brodie Croyle heaving the ball towards the end zone, trying to convert a fourth down we didn't need — Dave Rader would say after, "We were just trying to win the game" — Prothro jumping for it and landing at an odd angle, the horror that overtook the stadium when they realized that no, his shoe didn't come off, that was his foot pointing that way ... and the reality quickly setting in that Tyrone Prothro was done, possibly forever. Alabama's offense wasn't the same again for the next three years after that play.

Actually, we all tried to rationalize at the time. None of us knew what too many of us know now: that Prothro's injury was botched in the immediate aftermath, that he wound up having to endure (at least) three different surgeries on the broken leg, that the play in that end zone was actually it for his career. When Prothro brought out the game ball before the 2006 Auburn game — more than a year after he'd suffered the injury — he could still barely make it to midfield at a brisk trot. It was disheartening to everybody who watched him embarrass defenders during '04-'05.
In reality, it's not really fair to say Prothro's college years were a total loss: he did receive his degree (coach Saban placed him on medical scholarship upon arrival in '07), and he remains one of the more popular ex-Alabama players (you can follow him on Twitter if you so choose).
It just seems like a career unfinished. The whole country deserved to know Tyrone Prothro for more than just one incredible catch; they should've seen this 5-8 dart playing three times his size, throwing crushing blocks, catching passes that should've been out of his reach and doing everything he could to make Alabama fans proud of being Alabama fans again. One play, 6 seconds, took that away from him, away from us, for good.

If he can't bring himself to watch on Saturday, I can't say that I blame him.

No comments: