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November 22, 2012OXFORD, Miss. -- DT Shackelford doesn't know which is more difficult.
He's been out two seasons due to two ACL surgeries, and he's watched from the sideline as his Ole Miss teammates have put together two completely different campaigns.
In 2011, the Rebels went 2-10 and were listless through much of the season. That hurt Shackelford to helplessly watch, but the Ole Miss linebacker has also struggled through 2012, when the Rebels are one win from bowl eligibility and routinely in fourth-quarter games that have mostly gone the wrong way.
"I'm not sure which I prefer because both are so tough to see," said Shackelford, who is expected to return to the playing field for spring practice. "You saw the guys give up in 2011 and not get really any wins, and that was so difficult to watch, to be around. You wanted desperately to help lead and rejuvenate things.
"Then, this year, if I'm in the game, I know I could have made a check on this play or told someone where the play was going. I could have seen a tendency and been the difference on a tackle or a certain play, a play that won a game. Who knows which hurts more, I just want to be on that field."
Shackelford's months of rehabilitation begin in spring 2011 when he went to the turf and slammed his helmet to the ground after twisting oddly on a non-contact drill. It was obviously bad, and he knew it immediately. The 2011 season was lost, and after a surgeon had to go back in to clean up the knee this past February, the Decatur, Ala., native's future was uncertain.
Most don't come back from multiple ACL surgeries, but head coach Hugh Freeze said, most aren't Shackelford.
"I wish I could take him on the road with us right now," Freeze said. "He looks good, but we're going to be cautious. He's going to be out there in a few months and give our team a heck of a boost. He's a competitor and a leader."
Shackelford graduated in May with a history degree and is currently pursuing a master's in higher education. While some athletes struggle without football, Shackelford has stayed mentally sharp.
While his teammates are on other field preparing for the Saturday ahead, Shackelford is running, cutting and doing plyometrics to strengthen his knee and keep the rest of his body in football shape. The physical part has been grueling, but it's no match for the mental strain.
"Working out all the time, that's what my schedule consists of," Shackelford said. "Mentally is where you have to stay focused. But with a staff around here that knows what they're doing, you're going to get your body right. All the guys in the training room and weight room are going to make you good.
"You have to know to stay with it mentally and not get impatient and crash. You wake up every morning to keep working. That's the challenging part, more than the physical part - to stay to the process and know these people understand you r body and are going to get you back."
Shackelford says he's essentially 100 percent, as he's been moving laterally and doing all the different agility exercises as before the injury. His biggest weakness is his eagerness, as trainers have to keep him at the recommended pace and not cruise through the schedule before it's time.
Patience has been key since the day the knee popped, but it's toying with him in new ways now. With his movement close to normal, he still has to sit on the side and watch his Rebels fight for a bowl without him. He leads in ways that are possible, but it's obviously not the same as being out there. The months between 2012's end and spring 2013's beginning may be the longest wait yet.
"I'm going to be healthy coming off our last game," Shackelford said. "We'll have a bowl, and it's going to be a dead period with official visits and recruiting and all that. You go through that, and I'm always around football, but I haven't had a chance to put on those pads. I'm looking forward to that, impossible to tell you how much.
"I'm doing everything, from weight room to power clings, squats, cutting, backpedaling, nothing I'm not doing," Shackelford said. "It's feeling about to the point I used to feel, and it's going to get to the point where it's better than it's ever been. I've trained so much there are things I'm doing now I wasn't able to do when I was healthy."
The first non-senior to wear the No. 38 jersey in honor of the Chucky Mullins Courage Award has exhibited that attribute throughout his 19 months off the field. Despite tough days and endless outside opinions that his career was done, Shackelford has stayed with it one day at a time.
In four months, he'll get what he can't stop thinking about.
"It's almost here, and I'm more excited every day," Shackelford said. "I'm treating the spring like a game. I told them not to bother with those practice jerseys. They need to give me a game jersey. I just want to put those pads on again."
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