As soon as he heard the pop, Stephen Tuck knew it was serious.
During a spring practice session in 2007, the then sophomore wide receiver at LaGrange College was participating in a drill when he went up to catch a pass.
When he came down awkwardly, he knew he’d hurt his knee severely.
“I just went up for a ball and came down, and I heard it pop and everything,” said Tuck, a former prep star at Albany High.
Soon enough he received the diagnosis - a torn ACL.
His 2007 season was over before it started.
“I was looking forward to that year,” said Tuck, who caught 13 balls as a freshman in 2006. “I wanted to be out there helping them.”
It was a frustrating time for Tuck, who admitted the thought of quitting the sport crossed his mind during the 2007 season. He stayed the course, though.
He worked hard on his rehab, he supported his teammates, and he says he “learned a whole lot that season just watching.”
When the 2008 season opener rolled around against Birmingham Southern, Tuck was back.
He didn’t make a major impact in that game, but he was on the field when the Panthers won 28-23 for the first win in school history.
“Coming back from an injury, and being part of our first win, that was real special to me,” Tuck said. “I was here at the beginning, and I wanted to make sure I was part of that.”
The following week against Shorter proved to be Tuck’s true coming-out party.
In a 28-23 loss to Shorter, Tuck caught nine passes for a school-record 136 yards, and he had two touchdown receptions from Drew Carter.
“He had to get the right feel for me, and I had to get the right feel for him,” Tuck said of Carter. “By that Shorter game, we were pretty much clicking.”
They kept clicking all season, with Tuck finishing with 31 catches for 422 yards, good enough to earn first-team honors on the All-St. Louis Intercollegiate Conference team.
In the Panthers’ conference-clinching victory over Huntingdon, Tuck caught five balls.
It was a dream season for the Panthers, and for a sophomore receiver who bravely fought back from a catostrophic injury.
It was more than Tuck hoped for.
“I thought we could win games, but I didn’t think it would be 9-2 going to the playoffs,” he said. “I knew we had talent. We were just young and inexperienced, but I didn’t think it’d be a 9-2 season.”
Tuck came to LaGrange by way of Albany where he led his region in receiving as a senior.
He was thinking about walking onto the Valdosta State football team when his coach told him about a small college a few hours north of Albany that was starting a football program.
Tuck visit the LaGrange College campus with his mother, Barbara Tuck, and he was sold.
“We came on a recruiting trip, and she told me this is where she wanted me to be,” Tuck said. “When she told me that, it was pretty much set in stone.”
Tuck played in nine of the Panthers’ 10 games that first season, and he was going to be a key part of the team’s offensive plays in 2007, which was Carter’s first year at the school.
It didn’t happen, but the story has a happy ending for Tuck.
He had a big 2008 season, and he’s off to a fast start in 2009.
He had five catches a season-opening win over Birmingham Southern, and in last week’s loss to Shorter, he caught four balls, including two touchdowns.
Just like a year ago, the Panthers are 1-1, and Tuck hopes the script is a similar one this fall.
The Panthers finished the regular season 9-1 a year ago, good enough for a berth in the NCAA Division III playoffs.
LaGrange College will try get back on the winning track Saturday against Maryville.
Tuck said this year’s team has the ability to do what the 2008 club did when it “came together as a group,” after the Shorter loss.
“We can do it, but we know we have some tough games,” he said.