Almost eight months later, Coastal Carolina offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude still recalls the conversation vividly.
It was after the Chanticleers’ first offensive series of their FCS playoff game at North Dakota State last December and quarterback Alex Ross had taken a hard hit on the turf. As he headed back to the sideline after the team settled for a field goal, it was clear something was wrong with his throwing shoulder.
“I went over to him and I told Mike Church to warm up, and [Ross] turned to me and said, ‘You’re not taking me out of this bleeping game,’” Patenaude said, telling the story. “I said, ‘Can you throw?’ He said, ‘I can’t right now, but I’ll be able to when we go out there.’ I said, ‘All right, we’ll see how it goes.’”
Ross would play the rest of that third-round playoff game with a separated throwing shoulder, nearly leading the Chants to an upset of the Bison, who would later go on to win their fourth straight FCS national championship.
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The quarterback would then spend the following week getting ready to have surgery on the shoulder to repair his AC joint, and the ensuing months recovering and proving to himself that he’d be able to throw like he used to and be the same player who spent the 2014 season rewriting the program record book.
Talking after the team’s morning practice Saturday as the Chants continued their first week of preseason camp, Ross reiterated again that his shoulder feels 100 percent recovered, that he feels even stronger than before.
“I can throw just as far as before. It took a little while, but I’m definitely there now,” he said. “It feels great. There’s nothing inhibiting me right now.”
He’ll do anything to win. I’ll go to war with Alex any day.
CCU wide receiver Bruce Mapp
That means he’s ready to lead the Chants – No. 5 in the preseason FCS Coaches Poll – on another push toward a national championship. That means he’s ready for one more distinguished season and his own push for the Walter Payton Award as one of the top players returning at the entire FCS level.
And it means by the time he’s done, however it turns out, he will have finished as the most accomplished offensive player in program history with a secure grip and comfortable lead in most every relevant school record – along with a permanent place in Coastal Carolina football lore.
Not that he’s ready to consider the latter part just yet.
“I don’t really think about that. I don’t think about what I can leave here. I think about coming out here and working with my teammates every single day and giving it all I got and helping them reach their full potential and helping our team do what we need to do to get where we want to be,” he said. “The part about the legacy, that’s something to look back on when you get older.”
When fans and those involved in the program do reflect back on his legacy here, though, whenever that point comes, that game last December in Fargo, N.D., may well sum it up best.
And with Ross rebuilding his timing as the final steps of his recovery process continue with the Chants’ season opener still a month away, what better place to start examining it all then from the beginning eight months ago?
‘I knew something was wrong’
Just like his offensive coordinator, Ross remembers almost every significant moment of that game in clear detail, and he’s willing to tell the story in its entirety one more time Saturday after completing the first of two practices scheduled for the day.
It was a zone read play, he remembers, and he tucked the ball and ran toward the North Dakota State safety before getting to the ground. The defender soon followed, though, hitting him in the back and driving his shoulder into the turf.
And in that moment, Ross knew he wouldn’t be the same for the rest of the game – but that didn’t mean everyone else had to know that too.
“As soon as I got up, I could feel it and started rolling around a little bit. I knew something was wrong,” he said. “The next [two] balls I think I threw incomplete passes. They were all out of the back of the end zone and we ended up kicking a field goal, and I went back to the sideline and I told Coach P (Patenaude), I said ‘Something’s wrong with my shoulder.’”
Patenaude sent the quarterback over to the team’s head athletic trainer, Jeff Pounds.
“So I went over to Coach Pounds and said, ‘Something’s wrong with my shoulder, but don’t tell Dr. [Richard] Ward.’ As I soon as I said that, he felt it and he goes, ‘Dr. Ward, come over here,’” Ross said, able to let out a laugh about it now. “So I was like, ‘Oh man.’ They started looking at it and they told me I wasn’t going to be able to play the rest of the game, so I went up to Coach P and I told him I wasn’t coming out of the game and he took care of that.”
Meanwhile, few knew the full extent of the situation.
“I knew that the doctors were looking at him, I knew that Alex and Dave were talking. I knew all those things were going on,” Chants head coach Joe Moglia said. “What I didn’t realize during the game, I knew he had a separated shoulder, but I didn’t know it was his throwing arm. I didn’t find that out until later on.”
Nor did his teammates.
When Ross returned to the field for the next offensive series, they asked if he was all right and he assured them he was fine.
“I couldn’t let my teammates down, I couldn’t let those guys down. Playing with them all year, we had got so far, I didn’t want to see that end,” he says now.
Meanwhile, Patenaude kept a close eye on his offensive star. Playing against one of the best defensive teams in the country, limiting the playbook wasn’t going to be an option, so he mostly called the game as he normally would.
On the next Coastal Carolina series, the Chants relied on their rushing attack, but it was Ross who plunged into the end zone on a 4-yard touchdown run.
With the adrenaline flowing, Ross kept going as if nothing was wrong, but the break at halftime came as another sharp reminder of the reality of the situation.
“At that point you don’t have any adrenaline until the game starts back up. I was told to warm up, I took one throw and said ‘I can’t do it. I’m going to wait till the game,’” he said.
And yet, late in the third quarter it was Ross diving across the goal line on another 4-yard touchdown run. Then on the next drive, he uncorked a deep 48-yard completion to wide receiver John Israel that set up another touchdown as the Chants actually pulled ahead briefly early in the fourth with a 32-31 lead.
“I could tell some of the balls were sailing on him a bit, but he stuck some great balls in there and threw one 50 yards down the sideline to Israel,” Patenaude said. “After that, it was ‘You’re going to play until you come to me and tell me you can’t play anymore’ or if our trainer would have come over to me and said, ‘He’s done.’”
Ross recalled of that long completion, “I just put everything I had behind that one. Luckily it made it to him. He had to come back and make a play on the ball, but luckily it made it to him. If I was healthy I probably could have gotten it over the top and it might have gone the whole 90-whatever yards it was.”
He’d finish 11-for-24 passing for 197 yards and a late interception on his final throw while rushing 11 times and scoring those two touchdowns on the ground, but for the second year in a row the Bison proved too much to overcome for Coastal Carolina, winning 39-32.
The truth is, even if the Chants had advanced, Ross says he wouldn’t have been able to play in the next playoff game, although he says he had full confidence that Church, his backup, could have kept the season marching on in his place.
Instead, the Chants had to settle for another 12-win campaign and further establishing themselves as now perennial FCS contenders, while Ross had to settle for a career-defining performance that couldn’t be fully told by the final result.
After the game, he couldn’t raise his arm above his head and teammates started to learn a little more about what their quarterback had endured. One took a photo of his shoulder after seeing the bone clearly out of place.
“The kid is an unbelievable competitor and he tried to will the guys to a win. He really couldn’t pick his arm up and it took a lot of courage to do what he did,” Patenaude said. “I mean, he’s going in for touchdowns and diving over the top and landing on that shoulder. He gave everything that he possibly had and he played well.
“Friends of mine that were watching the game that are college coaches said they couldn’t even tell, and when I told them he had done his shoulder like that they were amazed he had even stuck it out. I think it’s just testimony to his will to win and his will to try to get everybody else to win.”
Said Moglia: “He wouldn’t have done that if he wasn’t the leader he is. And if there was any question that day, he certainly became a warrior.”
The road to recovery
Soon after the team returned back to Conway after the season-ending loss, Ross underwent the necessary tests hoping he wouldn’t need surgery.
He was told the AC joint would heal on its own, but if he wanted to maintain his same throwing motion he would indeed need it surgically reconstructed.
The plan was to see famed sports surgeon Dr. James Andrews in Pensacola, Fla., and when an unexpected opening came up that same week, Ross was quickly on his way down there to prep for the procedure on Thursday of that week.
He admits now there was some uneasiness before going under the knife.
“Before I had the surgery, yeah, I wasn’t sure,” he said of wondering how his arm would recover. “I did my research. I found out that [Chiefs quarterback] Alex Smith had similar surgery, I found out that [Lions quarterback] Matt Stafford had similar surgery and they came back very strong. So seeing those things helped me a out a little bit.”
He started throwing again in late March, very lightly, from about 10 feet or so, and again he started wondering if the shoulder would ever be the same again.
“The first day when I started throwing, it felt like a new arm,” he said. “At that point I’m starting to think, ‘Ohh, maybe it’s not going to come back the way it used to [be]. I hope it does.’ But with faith and just pushing through it and just working with an amazing staff, it came back 100 percent.”
He says the shoulder feels stronger than ever because of the amount of concentrated rehab he did on that area, and the coaches don’t doubt his strength there.
But that doesn’t mean the recovery process is entirely complete.
Standing off to the side during practice Saturday, Moglia watched Ross roll to his right and throw a bit wide of his intended target and out of bounds.
“What kind of pass is that? He missed the guy by 20 yards!” Moglia said playfully while talking about his quarterback’s recovery.
“I think he’s a little bit rusty,” Moglia said. “He looks good, he looks strong, he looks healthy. He’s always been pretty precise with his accuracy. I think that’s maybe a little bit off, but he hasn’t really thrown a real pass since last December so that’s pretty much to be expected.”
“I think it’s impossible to be at the same level he was at because he just hasn’t done anything in four months,” Patenaude said. “… He just has to get some timing down and feel comfortable being back out there throwing.”
Ross too admits the biggest thing now is working on his timing with the receivers again, but for their part, his playmakers seem encouraged by the quarterback’s progress.
“He’s back to his old self,” junior wide receiver Bruce Mapp said. “He’s airing the ball out, throwing speed outs from the other hash. He’s the best quarterback in the nation and he’s been doing what he does.”
Entering his senior season, Ross ranks as Coastal Carolina’s all-time leader in pass completions (529), passing yards (6,909), passing efficiency (150.2), passing yards per game (197.4), total offensive yards (8,264), total touchdowns responsible for (67) and total offensive yards per game (236.1) with more school and conference marks in reach this fall.
And, again, the reigning Big South Offensive Player of the Year expects to be the same quarterback he’s been to this point in piling up those record-setting numbers.
“I want to go out with a bang this year,” he said. “Time flies. Stepping on this campus freshman year, it really flies by. It seems like you blink and it’s all gone. So I’m going to take advantage of everything I can this year.”
His Coastal Carolina coaches and teammates – not to mention a fan base eager for what yet again sets up as the most anticipated season in program history – will all be interested to see what this final chapter entails for Ross.
One thing’s for sure, though – after what he showed in Fargo, N.D., the last time he led the Chants out onto the field, he has their complete confidence.
“He’ll do anything to win,” Mapp said. “I’ll go to war with Alex any day.”
Alex Ross By The Numbers