Erroll Tucker could have played football just about anywhere in the country. Ohio State wanted him. He chose the University of Utah because it would be easier for his parents to make the drive to his games from Lynwood, California.
He continued to make a name for himself as a defensive back in college. Erroll set 10 NCAA records in his senior year. He was the first player in history to lead punt and kick-off returns in the same season. He was the first return man selected as an All-American. He was a fifth-round NFL draft pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1986.
In his second pre-season game, he showed everyone that he was a talent to be reckoned with – he returned a kick-off 98 yards for a touchdown against the Washington Redskins. It was the first return for a touchdown that the Steelers had in five years. Then in his fourth pre-season game, the unthinkable happened. On a punt return, one of his own players was blocked backed into him. “Before I knew it, I was down,” he recounted, “I saw Giants Stadium spinning in circles when the pain set in. I broke the fibular (calf) bone, right above the ankle.” He missed out on the rest of his rookie year.
The doctor inserted a plate and then removed it a year later when the bone was fully healed. When Erroll returned to the field, his foot still wasn’t working right. He knew it every time he ran up and down the sidelines. “To Pittsburgh’s credit, they kept me around a long as they could, hoping I’d be okay,” he explained.
He wasn’t okay. After his first two surgeries, the tendons to his ankle were stuck, leaving his toes curled up. He required a third surgery called a “tendon release.”
Erroll dedicated himself to rehab. “I did so much rehab and working out in the off-season,” he said, “There were so many hours that I spent on the field by myself working out a lot.” He was not about to give up on his dream to play in the NFL. When it was time for try-outs, he was ready.
In 1988, he tried out for the Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, and San Francisco 49ers. Buffalo’s management asked him where he thought he was physically. Erroll answered, “I think I’m at about 85%.” They responded, “If you’re at 85%, we’ll take you.” He signed up with Buffalo. “They offered me the most money and had a good defense,” he added. They took him to the Super Bowl, too.
“I lost a step and a little bit of speed after the surgery. But hard work, dedication, and a big heart kept me alive and playing at a top level,” he explained.
For the following two years, he played for the New England Patriots. He broke his nose in camp and had to sit out the rest of the year. Of course, recovering from injuries is more than physical. It’s mental, too.
Though he was past the worst of it, he realized he still had some residual fear in 1990. He decided to play for the Orlando Thunder in the World Football League. “We played against the New York/New Jersey Knights in the same stadium in the Meadowlands,” he explained, “I was actually back in the same spot where I broke my leg. I thought about it a lot before I went into that game – this was years later. Up until that point, it weighed heavily on my mind.”
After a productive year, he was drafted by the Calgary Stampeders in the Canadian Football League. He played there for three years with quarterback Doug Flutie, and helped take his team to the Grey Cup (our version of the Super Bowl) twice.
“Going through what I went through was God’s gift. With my surgery and my injury, I really have something to give back to others,” he explained, “That’s what prompted me to go into rehab. I enjoy coaching, teaching, and mentoring others.”
Today, Erroll works as a Physical Therapy Aide for Los Alamitos Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy. What’s his advice for other people recovering for injuries? (Okay, it’s too perfect to edit a single word.) “Don’t try to rush it. Don’t question it. Sometimes things happen for a reason and it’s out of our control. But the main focus is to do your rehab, be patient, let your body heal and let nature take its course,” he explained enthusiastically, “You get out of it, what you put into it. You have to work hard to get back on your feet. Whether it’s to get back to work, professional sports, or everyday life. You have to do your rehab right. Don’t rush it. Take your time. Do the things you need to do.”
Erroll seems to have a knack for doing things right. He’s giving back in other ways, too. He returned to his hometown, the City of Lynwood to coach youth sports, including football and track, in his spare time. When he realized the kids had been without any Pop Warner or youth football for eight years, he stepped up with his business partner, Eugene Jackson who works with Nike, to put on several football camps each year.
NOTE: If you have a good comeback story, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d like to interview you. I hope this will be one of many Comeback Kid stories. Here’s why.