- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It was all about baby steps for Ronald Powell, both as a player and a person.
The two ACL injuries that ended his 2012 season took away his passion, but he also admits it improved who he was as a person.
“It was like God did this to make me a stronger person, a better person,” Powell told ESPN.com earlier this week.
“I’m a better person and a stronger person because of what I’ve had to endure with going through both of these ACL [injuries].”
It’s no secret that Powell, who led Florida with six sacks at Buck linebacker (linebacker/defensive end) in 2011, wasn’t the most personable guy around Florida’s football facility when he first arrived as the nation’s No. 1 high school player in 2010. He was sometimes standoffish and had attitude issues.
There were transfer rumblings after locker room spats with veterans and he wasn’t always receptive to coaching. Powell was a hotshot whose talent did everything for him in high school.
Talent couldn’t help him when he landed awkwardly while making an across-the-field tackle on running back Mike Gillislee during last year’s spring game. Powell was playing arguably the best football of his Florida career that spring until a freak injury ruined everything he’d done to that point.
Powell’s mental transformation was already beginning, and it was paying off on the field. It would have been easy for Powell to sulk, and it would have been hard to blame him.
“I saw a guy who handled hardship much better than I would have,” coach Will Muschamp said. “I saw a young man grow up. I saw a young man handle adversity better than I would have ever handled what he went through.
“There were people in the organization that didn’t handle it as well as he did.”
Powell said his ACL injury finally gave him something to get up and attack daily. He wasn’t only learning how to walk again or fire his quads up again for leg exercises, he was learning to have a more positive attitude. His goal was to find a way back on the football field, but he ended up finding more of his human side.
“I had to overcome that stuff and be positive when I wasn’t feeling up,” he said. “I still came in and showed smiles and was positive to my teammates. Still come in here and not be an [expletive].”
But those smiles quickly faded after he re-tore the ACL in his left knee cutting during rehab with his personal trainer before last year’s season opener against Bowling Green. He envisioned playing against LSU on Oct. 6, but that goal vanished in late August.
“After that, it was hard at first because you were at a point where you think you’ve made it out and you see the light at the end of the tunnel and all of a sudden, it’s gone,” he said.
Powell said he didn’t really lean on any specific person after each of his injuries. He felt it was something he had to overcome so he didn’t “cry or complain” to people. He was more motivated to get back on the field.
What helped him stay up after his second injury was interacting with teammates. It was hearing their laughter in the locker room and finding humor in their words, he said.
Even though he couldn’t play, Powell said he took to coaching up freshmen, like fellow Buck Dante Fowler Jr. and defensive end Jonathan Bullard, and admits both are way ahead of where he was at their age.
He also became a role model. When true freshman linebacker Matt Rolin arrived in Gainesville recovering from his own ACL injury, Powell went right to him, Muschamp said. He kept his spirits high, pushed him through training and made sure he wasn’t alone.
“That’s what it’s all about; it’s when you’ve got a peer, a teammate, a friend helping another young man through a tough situation,” Muschamp said. “That’s special.
“I don’t know if he would have done that three years ago. He’s doing it now.”
What Powell hopes to be doing in a few months is putting his pads back on. He’s expected to be cleared by doctors to resume practice on Aug. 1, when the Gators report for fall camp.
Muschamp also wants to make sure Powell, who ran this spring but still isn’t cutting, gets the most out of his future field time. Powell will play Sam linebacker in Florida’s base defense, but Muschamp will have Powell and Fowler (eight tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks) on the field at the same time in “Rabbit” and pass-rushing formations.
“I tell you, with me and him on the field that’s going to be scary,” Fowler said. “It’s not fair. I feel sorry for the quarterbacks.”
Powell calls playing again “a blessing” but he admits to being impatient. Fowler even said Powell rarely stays still during film sessions because he’s so anxious to play.
But Powell’s return will bring lofty expectations. However, he’s not concerned with hype or production. When asked about his future role, a humbler Powell could only grin and release a boyish giggle before answering.
“I just appreciate being on the depth chart,” he said.