Auburn’s Doolittle makes improbable comeback

Published 1:39 pm Thursday, September 4, 2008

AUBURN – Always the battler, Tez Doolittle fought back the tears.

The Auburn defensive tackle was making his emotional return to the field just over a year after sustaining an Achilles tendon injury severe enough that doctors closed the book on his career. Degree in hand, he had left football behind.

But there he was, nearly 24 years old and helping preserve the ninth-ranked Tigers’ shutout with a fourth-quarter tackle against Louisiana Monroe last Saturday.

“I was this far from crying, it felt like,” Doolittle said. “I had a frog in my throat. I was just anxious to get out there and I got out there in the first quarter. Is this really happening? I was just so excited.”

The NCAA awarded Doolittle a sixth year of eligibility after he spent a year away from the team rehabilitating the badly torn tendon. That means Saturday he’ll spend part of his day on the field against Southern Miss (1-0) instead of watching from his living room like last season.

It would have been easy for him to bid farewell to football after having already endured two shoulder operations and a dislocated kneecap that Doolittle said some people had told him would end his career.

Instead, he was back playing some 30 snaps last Saturday, surprising his coach and presumably the doctors who examined him last August.

“They did a little test on your leg to see if the Achilles is attached,” Doolittle said. “When they did that, mine didn’t move. They told me, ‘It’s over for you.'”

The injury even sounds gruesome. “The doctor said it was the first one he’d seen like this. I tore mine away from the heel bone. It was snatched away from the bone. I have five little anchors holding it back down,” Doolittle said.

He attended only one game last season, watching the others from home in neighboring Opelika. Doolittle said his Saturday routine was set: Watch the game, get upset, pray about his situation.

The 6-foot-3, 280-pounder might finally be rewarded with the most significant action of his career. He had only 19 tackles in 22 games his first three seasons, including brief action during Auburn’s perfect season in 2004.

Doolittle, who has a degree in criminal justice, arrived at two-a-day practices with plenty of doubters. He said his leg started feeling stronger late in fall camp, and he emerged as Mike Blanc’s backup on the line.

“The young man didn’t have a lot of fun in the last 12 months, having to do all that rehab,” coach Tommy Tuberville said. “Four weeks ago, I’d have never thought he’d play in this game. “His leg wasn’t strong enough, he couldn’t push off well, and we were a little bit afraid of putting him in harm’s way.

“He got better, he worked at it. He’s one of our leaders. He’ll be a force for us this year. I’m booking on it.”

Doolittle’s tackle behind the line on fourth-and-1 helped turn back one Louisiana-Monroe scoring chance in the fourth quarter of Auburn’s 34-0 win. His three tackles matched a career-high. Not bad for a guy who was limited to walking in a pool and doing other rehab exercises after his injury.

“This is what makes this business fun,” Tuberville said, “to see someone turn something around and make a positive out of a negative.”

Doolittle said he’s not worried about reinjuring his Achilles tendon.

“The doctor told me the left one is less attached than my right one now,” he said.

He said the worst pain came after the surgery when “it killed me” if he bumped against something or even when the sheets rubbed against the injured heel. Doolittle said the leg still stiffens up if he sits for too long but he hardly notices anymore.

Unlike the guys clamoring for a starting job, Doolittle is just happy to be on the field.

“As long as I’m playing,” he said, “I don’t really care.”