Zac Etheridge relishes second chance

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Auburn safety Zac Etheridge tries not to think about the hit that nearly ended his football career on Halloween 2009.

Early in the Tigers' 33-20 victory over Ole Miss at Jordan-Hare Stadium, Etheridge was hurt after the top of his helmet collided with teammate Antonio Coleman's shoulder while they tried to tackle running back Rodney Scott. Etheridge lay on the field for several minutes and was briefly paralyzed with only slight sensation in his toes.

"When I was lying on the ground, I didn't have any feeling," Etheridge said. "There was nothing going through my mind, except for me praying that everything was going to be OK."

Etheridge, a senior from Troy, Ala., was immobilized on a stretcher and carted off the field. He gave the Auburn crowd a thumbs-up before leaving the stadium. Etheridge tore ligaments in his neck and cracked the fifth vertebrae, but was released from the hospital after only three days.

Etheridge's injuries might have been worse if not for the quick thinking of Scott, who didn't move while he was pinned under Etheridge.

Etheridge, who started 33 games before his injury, missed the Tigers' last four games in 2009 and wore a neck brace for nearly four months. Doctors weren't sure if Etheridge would ever be able to play football again.

"When it first happened, I didn't know," Etheridge said. "But once they told me I had a chance to come back and play, I was going to do whatever it took to come back."

Etheridge rejoined the Tigers during preseason camp in August and quickly regained his starting job. He has played better than ever this season, finishing second on the team with 66 tackles and also has two interceptions and one fumble recovery.

Etheridge is one of the leaders of No. 1 Auburn's defense, which will try to slow down No. 2 Oregon's high-octane offense in Monday night's Tostitos BCS National Championship Game at University of Phoenix Stadium.

"[It] was really special because I'll never forget seeing him laying there on the field last year," Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. "As a father, as a coach, that was a scary, scary feeling. To see the work that he's put in and the resiliency, there was never any doubt in his mind. That was really, really special; not only to me, it was special to our whole football team."

Roof admits he was somewhat hesitant to put Etheridge back on the practice field so soon after his neck injury.

"You obviously had your concerns, because when he first got back out there, that first time, you just ..." Roof said, before pausing and wincing.

"'Please, God, let him be OK' At first, [those are] the things that run through your head. After it happened, a little time [passed], we were able to get back to normal."

Auburn linebacker Josh Bynes, the team's leader with 71 tackles, said it didn't take him long to see that Etheridge would come back stronger than ever.

"I remember the first day of practice," Bynes said. "We were running an inside drill and you heard this loud, 'Pop!' I heard everybody yelling because it was Zac. To hear that and see that so soon, it made me realize he was going to be OK."

Etheridge said he has tried to block the memory of the hit that nearly paralyzed him more than a year ago.

"You can't think about it," Etheridge said. "If you think about it, I'd be hesitant on the field and wouldn't be able to help my team."

Etheridge, who graduated in December 2009 with a degree in public administration, delivered a couple of huge plays for Auburn's defense this season. In the Tigers' 65-43 victory over Arkansas on Oct. 16, Etheridge scooped up a fumble and returned it 47 yards for a touchdown. The next week against LSU, he intercepted a pass to stop a scoring threat in Auburn's 24-17 win.

"It takes a lot of motivation to come back," Bynes said. "He seized the opportunity to play again. He could have been paralyzed. He fought through adversity and had a great season. He seized the moment."

That's why Monday night's game might mean more to Etheridge than any other player on the field.

"I'm just blessed to be here in the national championship game," Etheridge said.

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.