August 30, 2016

Inside the Freak Accident That Almost Changed the Complexion of Bama's 2015 season

Norman E. Waldrop, III, M.D.

By Matt Zenitz | 

Norman Waldrop got the text from Jeff Allen the morning of Alabama's second and final fall scrimmage.

It was August 15, 2015, exactly two weeks before the Tide's season-opening game against Wisconsin.

The text from Allen, Alabama's head football athletic trainer, included a picture of an X-ray that showed a broken right big toe. Allen asked: "What do you see here?"

Waldrop, one of the Tide's team doctors, responded: Somebody's got a badly broken toe. Whose toe is that?

Allen immediately called and shared, "It's Jake Coker's."

"I was like, 'OK... That's not good,'" Waldrop said.

One year later, this is the story of the accident and injury that nearly changed the complexion of Alabama's 2015 season.

If not for Waldrop, the Tide athletic training staff and Coker being uncommonly tough, Alabama's quarterback competition and season may have turned out much differently. All because of an injury that happened while wrestling in the locker room.

"Jake will be a legend for the rest of his life because he was the starting quarterback on a national championship team at Alabama," Waldrop said of Coker, who threw for 3,110 yards and 21 touchdowns last year. "You can never take that away from him. But he was close to not having that opportunity."


The playful wrestling match was Coker against one of his good friends, wide receiver ArDarius Stewart.

It happened in the locker room before Alabama's practice on Aug. 13.

Stewart grabbed Coker's right leg. When he did, Coker accidentally kicked a nearby trash can and broke the toe. He realized something was wrong after finishing and winning the wrestling match.

"I got him on the ground," Coker said, laughing. "But when we got up, I was like, 'Oh my God. I can barely walk.' I won the battle. I lost the war, though."

Coker walked straight to the training room and remembers saying, "I think I screwed up."

He started stressing immediately, especially because Alabama had yet to pick its starting quarterback.

The ongoing competition with Cooper Bateman and others was why Coker insisted on practicing through the pain shortly after suffering the injury.

"We didn't really have enough time to look at it before that practice, and I was fighting to get out there and practice because I didn't want anyone to know about it, especially coach Saban," Coker said. "I was hoping that I could just practice and that it would feel better the next day and that I'd be good. That was an ass ripping that I did not want to get."

Coker remembers thinking: There's no way I broke my toe doing something that stupid. He hoped it was only sprained until finding out Friday that it was indeed broken.

Then came a meeting with Saban. It didn't go as poorly as expected.

"He was pretty concerned," Coker said. "I think he knew that I was more upset than anybody and that there was nothing that he needed to say. We knew the situation. It was what it was, and we had to move on. I acted like an idiot, and we just had to move on from there."

Making the injury more of an issue was that it was the big toe on the right-handed Coker's right foot.

"For a quarterback, the big toe is the most important toe on either foot because it's the plant toe and because there's so much pressure on it every time you drop (back) and stop your drop, and then there's so much pressure there when you plant to throw," said David Morris, Coker's friend and longtime quarterback coach.

Coker went with the latter option, which included having two screws put in to repair the break.

Surgery was the following Monday. 

Most people would be out at least a month following that surgery, according to Waldrop. The bone typically takes six to 10 weeks to heal. Yet, Coker was back practicing two or three days after surgery and performed well enough in practices during the next week that he was named Alabama's starting quarterback.

Playing with stitches still in the toe, Coker was 15 of 21 for 213 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions in the Tide's 35-17 season-opening win over No. 20 Wisconsin.

The screws weren't removed until after Alabama's Pro Day in March. Why's that impressive? Imagine the feeling of two pebbles inside your toe. The more pressure you put on the toe or the tighter a shoe is, the more you feel those pebbles pushing on the skin. Coker battled through that discomfort.

It also hurt a lot whenever the toe and screws were stepped on, which happened against Michigan State in the College Football Playoff semifinals.

"Jake is easily one of the toughest guys that I've been around," Waldrop said. "I think he was doing individual stuff in practice two days after surgery and then went through a full practice three days later. I don't know many people who can do that. His toe was black and blue and gigantic, and he had just had it operated on. He had some soreness and some discomfort as we got going through the year, but he never complained. Never complained about it. And he never asked for time off from practice."

Coker played in every game and moved around without any noticeable limitations. That wouldn't have been possible without the behind the scenes work of Allen and the athletic training staff, Coker said.

There was daily treatment, adjusting of Coker's orthotics, modification of Coker's cleats and daily, extensive taping of the toe to reduce discomfort and to protect it from further damage.

"It was like I had a snowball on my big toe," Coker said. "Louis Duran, one of the trainers, used to tape me up every day. And every day, he'd talk about how he couldn't wait to not have to do my tape job anymore."


The toe was tested one final time during the national championship game.

Alabama led Clemson, 38-33 with a little more than two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. With the Tide facing a third-and-2 from the Tigers' 6-yard line, Coker picked up a critical first down with a 3-yard run. With Clemson standout defensive lineman Kevin Dodd barreling towards him, a scrambling Coker stopped, cut inside of Dodd and dove forward to pick up the first down. 

It was one last big play from Coker, one that helped seal Alabama's win over Clemson.

Minutes later, Coker was on the field to take one final snap. Stewart was lined up behind him. After Coker took a knee, the championship celebration started.

It began for Coker and Stewart with the two embracing for an aggressive hug. Fittingly, it looked like two wrestlers grappling and ended with Coker on the ground.

From there, Coker was swarmed by other Tide teammates.

"When you look back on it, not many people know the whole story," Morris said.

"To know what the kid had gone through already and then something like that happens, and then for him to do what he did, it just makes it even sweeter."

About Norman E. Waldrop III, M.D.

Norman E. Waldrop, III, M.D. is a board-certified, fellowship-trained orthopaedic surgeon, who specializes in foot and ankle surgery. A large majority of Dr. Waldrop's time is dedicated to sports injuries, arthroscopy, and traumatic and post-traumatic conditions of the foot and ankle.

To schedule an appointment with Dr. Waldrop, call Andrews Sports Medicine & Orthopaedic Center at (205) 939.3699 and ask to speak with Dr. Waldrop's appointment scheduler.