Big Ten: Chris Skinner
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Corey Wootton's pity party lasted all of five minutes on the Alamodome carpet.
The Northwestern star defensive end had mangled his right knee late in the fourth quarter of the Alamo Bowl against Missouri. His instant self-diagnosis -- a torn ACL -- would turn out to be spot on, and Wootton went to the sideline in obvious physical and emotional pain.
|Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images|
|Corey Wootton was voted first-team All-Big Ten last season.|
Questions raced through his mind: How serious is it? How long will I be out? What about the NFL?
That's when the wheelchair rolled up to him.
"Corey, how you doing?" Chris Skinner asked him.
"Could be here, Corey," Skinner replied, referring to the wheelchair.
"I haven't seen him frown since," said Northwestern defensive line coach Marty Long, recalling the sideline scene.
Skinner served as a constant source of inspiration for Wootton and his teammates, even in their toughest moments. A former athlete who became a quadriplegic following a horrific car accident in 2000, Skinner first came to Northwestern in the preseason as a motivational speaker.
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald typically brings in speakers during preseason camp, but he had Skinner come just days before the 2008 opener. Skinner's story left a powerful impression on the players, and he remained in close contact with the team, attending several games, including the Alamo Bowl.
"It really motivated me to play to the fullest of my potential," Wootton said. "I never really thought about the way I played until he came. He said, 'Give everything you've got every snap, because you never know when it's going to be taken away from you.' That's what I try to live by.'"
Wootton underwent ACL surgery Jan. 16. He's sitting out spring practice but plans to start jogging in a few weeks, targeting a return for the start of camp in August.
Long bristled a bit when asked about Wootton coming back from a major injury, saying, "Major injuries keep you from even walking. An ACL is just happenstance right now."
Wootton learned that lesson the night of Dec. 29.
"I was kind of down about it, and he just told me just to push on," Wootton said. "I thought it definitely could be worse."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald knows off-field discipline isn't a major problem with his team. A look around the country or even around the Big Ten shows that things could be much, much worse.
But Fitzgerald wanted to stress the importance of making smart choices to Wildcats players, and last week he brought in a speaker who could hammer home that point. Before June 10, 2000, Chris Skinner was a lot like many of the players he addressed last Wednesday: strong, athletic, enjoying college life.
But after a night of drinking with his fraternity brothers, Skinner got into a car with an impaired driver and didn't wear his seat belt. They ended up in an accident that left Skinner as a quadriplegic.
He went back to school at Radford University, finished his degree and began sharing his story with groups around the country. Fitzgerald usually has speakers address the team during training camp in Kenosha, Wis., but he switched things up this year and had Skinner come during game week.
"He was a top athlete and now he's in a wheelchair," Northwestern senior running back Tyrell Sutton said. "He's paralyzed from the neck down. He was a great athlete who should have been playing in college. He's a guy who loves football. He loves everything about it, and he just let us know that the choice is ours."
Northwestern originally considered having Skinner address the entire athletic department, but Fitzgerald asked athletic director Jim Phillips if he could speak to the football team. Skinner's message struck a chord, and Northwestern presented him with the game ball following the season-opening win against Syracuse.
"That's the best speech I've ever heard in my life," Sutton said, so I took that to heart and I just want everyone else to think the same thing. Why wouldn't you go out and play every game like it's your last? You never know. It could be."
Skinner stressed the importance of happiness and health, two goals he has been able to achieve despite his accident.
"He hasn't let that define who he is," Fitzgerald said. "He just had an hour and 15 minutes with our team last Wednesday that moved our guys like I've seen no one else move 'em. I'm glad to see Tyrell took to the message."