If you think back to last season’s opener, one thing we Dawg fans were reminded of as the game approached was Justyn Ross’ return for Clemson. He had been one of the best receivers in college football before he lost a season due to a serious spinal injury. I don’t know about you, but at the time I didn’t realize just how serious his condition was.
What makes his evaluation even more difficult? Ross is attempting to become the first known player to make the NFL with a congenital fusion in his spine.
“Justyn has a condition that is very rare, and to my knowledge, there is no precedent of another high-level American football player with this condition playing football,” said Dr. David Okonkwo, who performed the surgery on Ross that allowed him to return to play. “So we were paving new road as we went through the process.”
FROM THE BEGINNING, there was one glimmer of hope that Ross clung to: the potential for surgery to relieve the pressure on his spine, which would give him a chance to play again. But even then, there would be no guarantees.
Shortly after the diagnosis, the coronavirus pandemic shut down campus and Ross went back home to Alabama. He continued to work out, telling himself the doctors would realize they made a mistake, that he was fine, that he did not need surgery. The hit he took that started all this was nothing compared to harder hits in his career, and nothing had ever happened to him.
Reality said something different. Over the next several weeks, multiple neurosurgeons told Ross they would not clear him to play football, saying the risks including paralysis or even death. Despite that, Ross pressed forward trying to save his career.
Ross’ condition, Klippel-Feil syndrome, isn’t curable. He and his family became convinced that it was treatable, though.
“Dr. Okonkwo is very confident in what he says, he’s very knowledgeable about his work, so he made us feel comfortable when we met him,” Franklin said. “He never made me feel like he had any doubt in what he could do. So that’s where we got the confidence that OK, we can go ahead and do this.”
Ross had the surgery in June 2020. Okonkwo removed a disc that was pushing backward to free up space for the spinal cord, leaving behind a graft and plate to hold everything together.
“The procedure itself is a very common procedure, but this procedure for this specific reason is very rare,” Okonkwo said. “It is virtually unique to have done this surgery in someone with Klippel-Feil syndrome, who happens to be one of the most talented football players in the United States of America.
It’s that “who happens to be” part where it starts feeling a little creepy. And speaking of creepy,
Swinney and chief of football administration Woody McCorvey flew to Pittsburgh to be with Ross and his mother, then spoke with Okonkwo afterward.
“I asked him, ‘How did the surgery go?'” Swinney said. “I said, ‘Did you go 9-3 or 6-6? He said, ‘I went 15-0.’ And I said, ‘Well, I like that answer.'”
But Okonkwo also cautioned Swinney, telling him even if Ross did everything right, there was still a chance he wouldn’t be able to play.
Well, Ross did play last season for Clemson, finishing with team highs in catches (46) and receiving yards (514). All that led him to being projected as a mid-round pick in the NFL draft. As it turned out, not only was Ross not drafted, he also hasn’t been offered a free agent contract by any team. Which leads to the uneasy conclusion that NFL teams are more concerned about his health than Clemson or Ross are.
Look, I’m not saying there are any bad people here. A pro football career was Justyn Ross’ ticket to supporting himself and his family after school and Dabo Swinney is being paid big bucks to win games, something a contributing Ross would help achieve. It’s clear that plenty of due diligence was done before allowing Ross to play and, in the end, it was his call to make. Or was it? The NFL is more of a business than is Clemson, or at least that’s what we’re supposed to think, and it’s a little sad to consider that Clemson was willing to go where 32 other teams don’t appear to be.
UPDATE: Weirdly enough, this makes me feel slightly better.
I hope everyone involved knows what they’re doing.