TUCSON, Ariz. -- Arizona receivers Austin Hill and David Richards erupt into cheers as Wildcats linebacker Marquis Flowers zeros in on a UNLV fumble. "Scoop and score, scoop and score!" they both shout, practically in unison. When Flowers gets tackled by his shoestring at the 9-yard line, they chortle a bit at their defensive teammate just missing a rare opportunity to celebrate in the end zone. Then the Wildcats' two best receivers become quiet.
Arizona's offense takes the field, but Hill and Richards do not. The Wildcats score two plays later to go up 17-0 in what will become an easy rout. They celebrate in the end zone and on the sideline, but Hill and Richards can absorb the scene in only two dimensions. They are watching the road game on a giant-screen television in the football players' lounge on Arizona's campus.
It's a cool space in the team's fancy new football building -- comfortable chairs, pool tables, two pop-a-shot games, cheesesteaks and fresh-baked brownies on hand -- but it's not the same as going to battle and scoring touchdowns with your teammates.
"It's not fun at all. I just wish I was out there," Hill said, before trying to lighten his morose sentiments. "Well, since we're not throwing the ball as much, maybe not."
Richards and Hill are injured. They didn't make the trip to UNLV because their presence would count against the travel roster limit of 70 players. Richards is eyeballing a return from his foot injury in two weeks -- in time for the Pac-12 opener at Washington.
Hill, the Pac-12's second-leading receiver in 2012, however, is out for the season after he tore his ACL on April 10 during the second-to-last session of a spring practice. As he remembers it, he was having a good day. Then he caught a pass on a crossing route, and backup safety Will Parks hit him high and from behind. He planted his left foot to brace himself.
"It just gave out," Hill said.
"At first I denied it," he said. "I've had friends tear their ACLs and they always said they felt or heard a pop. When it happened to me, I really didn't feel anything. It felt like I hyperextended it. It was just numb, felt weird. I was able to get up and start walking."
He didn't need to be helped off the field. He tried to convince himself it was just a tweak. A partial tear, at worst.
"Then when I got the news, I still denied it," he said." I probably denied it for a good day or so. I didn't want to believe it. I sat out in the middle of the field for a while, just trying to think, 'What am I going to do now?'"
That's just it. Football is the ultimate team game, but when a player gets injured, particularly when he's lost for an entire season, the team mantra becomes "next man in," and fans move on as well. A player not playing is forgotten. Surgery? It's just a word in a beat writer's notebook, not something scary that involves anesthesia and leaves permanent scars.
For that injured player, getting back to the game becomes an individual challenge, separate from the team. Football is taken away and it is replaced by the drudgery of rehabilitation. There's plenty of time to think. Maybe too much time.
In multiple interviews separated by three weeks, Hill alternated between optimism for the future and frustration at being outside looking in.
To read the rest of Ted Miller's story, click here.