Commentary

Roland's awful injury now awe-inspiring

Updated: January 16, 2010, 10:43 AM ET
By Jeff Caplan | ESPNDallas.com

Texas A&M forward Bryan Davis heard the awful crack, looked back and saw teammate Derrick Roland sprawled on his back in the middle of the lane. At that surreal moment, Davis couldn't comprehend the sound that echoed throughout the sold-out arena as if a 2x4 had been snapped in half over the public-address system. So he did what basketball players do and hustled back on defense.

Seconds later, once a frenzied sequence ended under Washington's basket and play stopped, Davis was overcome by the horrifying episode. The 6-foot-9, 250-pound senior became weak in the knees. He buried his head in his oversized hands and shuffled about, wailing, "Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God."

Teammate Donald Sloan, Roland's best friend since elementary school, stuffed his head inside his jersey. Queasy and barely able to maintain his balance, Sloan slumped over and needed two assistant coaches and a teammate to slowly guide him off the court.

Clutching Sloan's arms, they led him to the A&M bench, where he joined his teammates in a human semicircle, their arms tightly intertwined around one another, their heads bowed and their backs facing their fallen teammate.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Roland
Matt A. Brown/Icon SMISince the injury, Roland remains actively involved as a part-time coach and source of inspiration for the Aggies.

"I knew it was bad when I saw the reaction on their faces" immediately after his fall, Roland said in a telephone interview this week, more than three weeks since that Dec. 22 game in Seattle. "I've been with Sloan since the beginning of elementary. When I saw his face I knew it was pretty bad."

Anyone who has watched the gruesome scene unfold on YouTube can understand their reactions. The spine-stiffening noise came first. Then A&M's spindly 6-4 senior guard from Seagoville, its second-leading scorer and fiercest defender, lay motionless on his back, both legs bent at the knees.

But Roland's right leg had snapped to the left at mid-shin at a nearly 90-degree angle. He broke his tibia and fibula in gruesome fashion, a brutal injury more often incurred amid the violence on a football field.

Coach Mark Turgeon had drawn up a play to post up Roland. He got open inside and received a bounce pass. He made a quick move to the basket and went up for a point-blank look at the rim.

"That's probably a shot that if I shoot it a hundred times," Roland said, "I'm probably going to make it a hundred times."

On this occasion, Washington's Quincy Pondexter blocked it. There appeared to be little contact, and no foul was called. As the Huskies ignited a fast break, Roland came down and his leg collapsed beneath him. Snap. He knew something was wrong.

"I heard it," Roland said.

Yet judging by his muted reaction as an army of coaches and medical personnel encircled him, you'd never know that a relentless burning sensation had gripped his lower leg so powerfully that he pleaded with himself not to look.

Remarkably, Roland's thoughts instantly transferred from the agonizing pain in his leg to his unnerved teammates. They still had a game to play. And A&M trailed Washington 34-33 early in the second half of their last game before the Christmas break.

"At the time I was trying to keep everybody calm because I realized the severity of it. I didn't want them to let it bleed over into the second half. We had just started the second half and it was a big game for us," Roland said. "We were talking about it all week, how big of a game that was for us. I didn't want to be a distraction. I just wanted to move on and get to the hospital so my teammates could focus back on the game."

The Aggies, beaten up emotionally, fought on but lost the game. Since reconvening after the holiday break, they had won three in a row, including their Big 12 opener against Nebraska. Coming off a blowout loss at No. 12 Kansas State on Tuesday, A&M (12-4, 1-1) -- shooting for an unprecedented fifth consecutive NCAA tournament berth -- moves on to No. 1 Texas (16-0, 2-0) on Saturday in Austin, where Roland's senior class has yet to come away with a victory.

"It'd be pretty good to knock off the No. 1 team and get a win in Austin all at one time," said Davis, a senior.

Roland will be there, seated on the bench with his teammates as he has been for the past two games. His right leg is enveloped in a large boot. A titanium rod and four titanium screws are inserted in his leg. The hardware might remain permanently. He can walk on his own for short distances, but keeps crutches close at hand.

He won't play again this season. As Roland begins extensive rehabilitation in about three weeks and starts to make progress, he will consider applying for a medical redshirt which, if granted by the NCAA, would allow him to return next season.

Doctors have told him that with hard work he could expect a full recovery. It will likely take six to seven months for him to begin feeling like his old self, but Roland said he is ahead of schedule and is even surprising his doctors in College Station.

For now, no longer capable of defending the Big 12's top scorers, Roland assumes a bench role as an inspiration to his teammates, even acting as an informal part-time coach.

"I tell them different things that can help them throughout the game, because I know coaches get so caught up in the X's and O's that they miss other things that are going on," Roland said. "It is tough because I see things out there that I could do and I see plays that I'd be able to make. There's people that I have defended before and did a good job on them, so that's frustrating to watch when you know there's things you can do but you're just not able to do because of an unfortunate situation."

Once school resumes Jan. 19, Roland will be driven from class to class in a golf cart. His best friend Sloan and his roommates, Davis and guard B.J. Holmes, run errands for him and drive him around town.

When he's online, Roland is careful to steer clear of images of his fall. He said teammates will sometimes Google pictures, but he wants no part of it. Even at the hospital he didn't look at his leg. He's seen one picture, he said, but it's from an angle that doesn't reveal the injury.

A Google search for "Derrick Roland" reveals 1,220,000 hits with page after page offering photos, videos and descriptions of the awful event. In comparison, a Google search for "Donald Sloan," A&M's leading scorer and most-recognized player, garners 225,000 hits.

If a silver lining can be found, Roland said it's that he has proved his toughness to himself. He said he has received dozens of letters and e-mails expressing support. He said most also relate a sense of awe and admiration toward his stoic handling of a frightening situation as he lay on the court.

"People look at me now as an inspiration. They all tell me that they admire my toughness and things like that," Roland said. "I was actually doing it for my teammates, to keep them calm and keep everything positive. I wasn't thinking about how people were going to look at me after this.

"But people have really looked out for me in this situation."

Jeff Caplan covers colleges for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

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