Inside Alabama running back Trey Sanders’ recovery from car wreck, emotional return – Dothan Eagle

Alabama running back Trey Sanders (6) gets a hug from offensive lineman Evan Neal (73) after scoring a touchdown during the second half against Miami on Saturday in Atlanta.
Alabama football’s open week last November gave sports medicine director Jeff Allen a quiet Friday at home.
The tranquility of the day ended when Allen, one of the more recognizable faces around the Tide’s program the past 15 seasons, received a phone call from a North Florida area code. It was an emergency room doctor who informed Allen she was treating then-sophomore running back Trey Sanders after a car accident.
“We think he’s going to make it,” the doctor began.
The way the conversation was framed threw off Allen, who had received calls about player injuries before but not one where the player’s life was in question.
“I remember it distinctly,” Allen said this week. “This one started out with a completely different tone, and I knew right then this is a major situation that we’re going to have to deal with.”
Sanders had traveled home for the weekend when a car driven by his brother Umstead, a defensive end at Jacksonville State, was hit from the side while crossing an intersection. When Sanders arrived at a hospital, doctors discovered the extent of his injuries.
“He had multiple fractures and soft tissue damage,” Allen said. “And internal injuries as well. Without diving into what they were specifically, I think that kind of speaks for itself.”
Coach Nick Saban later revealed Sanders broke his hip. Both Sanders and the team initially questioned whether he would be able to return to play football, but months of rehabilitation culminated in Alabama’s 44-13 win Saturday over Miami putting an end to those doubts.
Once a five-star recruit rated No. 6 nationally among all prospects in his class by 247 Sports, Sanders saw playing time for the first time in more than 10 months and scored his first college touchdown on a 20-yard, third-quarter run.
Jeremy Gsell, the Tide’s football rehabilitation director, could not contain his excitement to the sideline. He met Sanders on the field for a hug that was captured on camera and capped a long journey back.
“I thought Jeremy was actually gonna get a flag,” Allen recalled. “He was about five yards onto the field and I actually yelled, I said, ‘Jeremy, they’re kicking the extra point! Get off the field!”
Given the circumstance, Saban might have let the flag pass. The coach brought up Sanders’ rehabilitation without prompting during his radio show two days before the game, adding, “He’s really worked his tail off, and there would be nobody on our team that I would be more happy to see have success.”
Success came quickly for Sanders, whose first three carries of the game on consecutive plays went for 9 yards, 9 yards and then the 20-yard score. He ran five more times in the fourth quarter for a total of three yards as Miami fought Alabama’s attempt to drain the clock.
Saban’s opening statement to his postgame press conference included to a tribute to Saban prefaced by, “one thing that was really nice out there.”
Added Saban: “I was as happy as all get out to see him score a touchdown today. Most people don’t know how hard this guy’s worked to try to get back as a football player.”
Gsell and Allen shed light this week on that process, which first involved Sanders recovering from his internal damage while in a wheelchair and, later, on a scooter.
“You got to let the non-orthopedic injuries take care of themselves first,” Gsell said. “We had to take a step back and let his body heal first before we could even think about rehabilitation.”
After being transferred from Florida to UAB hospital in Birmingham, Sanders was treated by hip trauma specialist Dr. Clay Spitler. He was joined by another hip specialist in Dr. Benton Emblom at Andrews Sports Medicine, along with team doctor Lyle Cain.
“It was something that if he didn’t come back, we would all understand,” Gsell said. “It was something that even the doctor that fixed him said, ‘I don’t really see this in athletes.’ … None of us really knew what to expect.”
But once Sanders go through the first few days of his recovery, Allen said, it was clear he wanted to play football again. That meant Gsell, who has been on the school’s training staff since 2006, coming up with a plan to get him back on the field. Unlike a torn ACL or more common injury, there was not a normal schedule to follow.
“There was no script for this,” Gsell said. “We just had to hit one milestone and then regroup and then say, ‘Now what we do?’ Just had to keep climbing that ladder.
“This was not an easy thing for him to do. This was not a pain-free thing for him to do.”
That meant starting with simple activities like standing up from a chair. Gsell used the school’s specialized pool in its recently-expanded sports science center to let him walk underwater without the same forces on his body as dry land.
“Getting up and moving around, firing his core muscles — you can imagine how painful that is after a broken pelvis,” Gsell said. “Starting to run, starting to lift weights. Those were milestones that hurt but were necessary, and he had to trust in what you’re telling me is right and what you’re telling me will make be better.”
Alabama’s staff had treated former quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in 2019 for his dislocated hip and posterior wall fracture, but Saban noted early in Sanders’ rehab that the two players’ injuries were not the same.
At the NFL level, pelvic fractures are rare but not unprecedented. Among the more serious of the past 20 years was Green Bay Packers offensive lineman Chad Clifton suffering pelvic injuries on a blindside hit from Warren Sapp that doctors compared to car accident injuries.
In this case, Sanders had to overcome an actual car accident to subject his body to the rigors of SEC football.
“[Given] the demands on a person at that position to not just play, but play it here — it would have been OK if he didn’t get back,” Gsell said. “He did [get back] with flying colors.”
Sanders’ weight room performance is better now than at any point in his three-year tenure at Alabama, while his speed and explosiveness metrics tracked by the school’s sports science department have returned to pre-injury levels.
Saban said Sanders is not yet back to 100 percent on the field, but Gsell viewed Saturday’s touchdown and sideline embrace as both a realization of Sanders’ desire to play again and a validation of the work it took.
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Alabama running back Trey Sanders (6) gets a hug from offensive lineman Evan Neal (73) after scoring a touchdown during the second half against Miami on Saturday in Atlanta.
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