Derrick Locke has a six-inch scar on his left knee that symbolizes surgery following a devastating knee injury he suffered last fall.
But don't tell him he's still a member of the walking wounded.
After the junior running back tore two ligaments in his left knee returning a kickoff in UK's 21-20 win over Arkansas on Oct. 18, trainers told Locke that it could be a career-ending injury. Yet a little more than seven months after he hurt the knee, Locke is expected to return to team activities in June. If that goes well, he'll be cleared for fall camp in August. Locke is taking things one step further, promising that he'll be on the field and ready to go for UK's season opener against Miami (Ohio) on Sept. 5.
"I'm not looking to redshirt; I'm not looking to miss no games," Locke said. "When Miami comes around, I expect to play. I know I'm putting a lot of pressure on myself, but I expect to be full-go and be in that backfield doing my thing. That's just my mentality, and I'm not going to change that."
Locke was seven games into a sophomore season that saw him emerge as the Wildcats' top all-purpose threat when he stood in the end zone to return a kick after Arkansas had taken a 14-0 lead late in the second quarter. Alex Tejada's kickoff appeared headed out of bounds but died at the 4-yard line on the left side of the field.
"It was a bad kick, and I really thought it was going to go out of bounds, but the ball stopped right at the line," Locke said. "I thought, I better pick this up, and my teammates thought, uh-oh, we better block. I got it, looked downfield and I thought to myself, if I make one cut, I'm about to score," Locke said.
Locke broke one tackle, and then as he planted his left foot, Arkansas' Freddy Burton came flying into Locke's left leg.
"It seemed like he went straight for my knee," Locke said. "I don't know if it was dirty, but to me it looked like it might have been a dirty play. Just to dive from that far out, I don't know. But hey, stuff happens on the football field. But when I got hit, I knew something wasn't right. "
Locke was hoping it was just an MCL sprain or tear, which would have probably allowed him to return at the end of the season. But tests revealed a torn ACL and MCL, which not only would shelve him for the remainder of the 2008 season but also put his career in jeopardy. Locke has never lacked for confidence on or off the field, but the news was quite humbling.
"I'm a strong-minded person, and I try not to let stuff get to me, but my trainers were blunt," Locke said. "They told me straight up, this is a real, real, real bad injury. I said, 'It can't be that bad,' and they said it could be career-ending. I was like, 'Are you serious?' They said I could do well with rehab and come back, but they said 'We can't assure you that you won't hurt it again, which would mean you may not ever be able to play again.' "
Locke said he entertained thoughts of giving up football.
"When I first heard that it could be career-ending, I didn't want to go through with it," he said. "I was just like, 'What's the point of me doing rehab? I'll be busting my butt, going through pain, and still might not be able to play. I didn't want to waste my time."
Locke quickly shook out of his funk and decided to face rehab head on.
"Something just clicked, and I said, if I'm not going to play, it's not going to be because I didn't work hard," Locke said.
To say rehab has been a grind for Locke would be a gross understatement. After surgery, Locke's nerve block wore off and led to painful blood rushes when he tried to stand up. Locke spent hours daily fighting through gruesome pain to get proper flexion and extension in the knee. He had to sleep at night with a continuous passive motion machine on the knee.
"I might wake up in the middle of the night, and my knee is hurting," Locke said. "I'd have to tell my girl to move it so I could sit in the ice machine for 30 minutes, sleep, wake up and put the CPM back on."
UK head athletic trainer Jim Madaleno vouched for Locke's determination in his rehab and said he developed a rapport with senior athletic trainer Matt Summers.
"Derrick has been working extremely hard," Madaleno said. "Initially, it was tough for him dealing with the fact that he was injured. But, after he got over that, he has taken this rehabilitation project as a personal challenge. Matt drives him and challenges him daily to put forth his best effort in every exercise, and Derrick has responded." Madaleno said Locke was recently cleared for straight-ahead running, with the next progression being cutting and sport-specific drills. The UK training staff monitors the knee's adaptation with each phase change.
"We are hopeful he'll be ready for fall camp," Madaleno said.
Locke called rehab the most grueling thing he's ever been through.
"It's not for everybody," Locke said. "This will really make a man of you. And if you're not a man, you'll find that out. It will break you down mentally and bring you back up. I can't say you're not going to shed a tear, I told myself I wasn't going to cry, but that stuff hurts. But if you can go through an injury like this and make it, it will make you a better person."
Will he be the same?
Locke arrived at UK a 5-foot-9 180-pounder with sub 4.3 speed, yet he bristled at those who questioned whether he was big enough or durable enough to be an every down back in the Southeastern Conference. One of the benefits of his time off was being able to hit the weight room full time. With his track career on hiatus and no practices to worry about, Locke spent a lot of his post-surgery time pumping iron. Locke now looks thicker and broader in the shoulders and said he weighs 191. On a recent Twitter post, UK's head coach for offense, Joker Phillips, said: "Saw D. Locke in training room today. What a beast; 191 pounds and a different look in his eyes."
"I never really had a real off-season until now, where I could get in there and grind it out," Locke said. "I did a whole lot more lifting. While they were in spring practice, I was lifting. I didn't have to do track, so I could do double workouts four days a week without having to worry about running and losing weight. I finally got to pick up some weight. Hopefully I can keep it on."
But while Locke might be stronger, the biggest question regarding his injury is whether he can regain the elite speed that earned him a spot in the running back rotation despite arriving in Lexington as an unknown walk-on from Hugo, Okla.
Locke said numerous athletes who have come back from various types of knee injuries have eased his concerns.
"They all said they ran their best times after they had surgery, so we'll see," Locke said. "When I run now, I feel fast. I don't think, all of a sudden, I'm going to get slow. I can still move, but since I haven't run in almost a year, I just have to get back in the flow and get my old burst back.Give me a month and a half, and we'll see."
The common theory is that it takes a full season after a player returns from a serious knee injury before a player returns to 100 percent. Locke is willing to test that theory.
"If I had to redshirt, I would," Locke said. "But I don't want to. I want to be out there with my team. I feel like I've been out long enough."
The UK backfield would certainly benefit from Locke's presence. UK has only two other scholarship backs with playing experience, senior Alfonso Smith and junior Moncell Allen.
"Experience is something you can't replace," UK running backs coach Larry Brinson said. "You don't want to have to rely on freshmen. There's nothing like guys who already know the system and the speed of the game. And we need to have all the backs we can get. We need to have at least four backs ready to go, with a fifth guy ready to go. If you don't have depth, it's tough to make it in this league, because you could have a streak of bad luck with injuries. I've lost three backs in two quarters before."
Locke will also have to overcome the mental hurdles that come with returning to the field after a major knee injury, but he insists that won't be an issue.
"I'm just a different person," Locke said. "The trainers told me, once you get on the field it's 90 percent mental. I understand where that could come from, but at the same time, I don't have time to get out there and be scared. If I'm 100 percent rehabbed and you say I can go, when it's time for me to make a move, I'm going to try to make a move. I'll know what I can and can't do. I'm not going to be out there guessing. It'll be time to go play."
Locke also has added motivation in his 2½ year-old son, Kelton, who was born at the end of his freshman year.
"I come from a little small town, and for him to say my daddy has done this and done that makes me feel good," Locke said. "I want to do it anyway, but I want to be something he can be proud of."
Brinson said he wouldn't bet against Locke.
"He came into my office after spring recruiting and said, 'Coach, I'm going to be so good it's sick," Brinson said. "I'm figuring sick is good. He's a self-motivated guy, and he's also a hard-headed kid. If I could put my money on anybody to recover from this, I'd put it on Derrick Locke."