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Etheridge overcomes injury for senior season

Four years ago, he was picking off passes in his orange and blue jersey under the dim lights of Movie Gallery Veterans Stadium.

These days the colors are still the same but the stage is a little bigger for Zac Etheridge, the starting corner for the No. 2 Auburn Tigers.

The former Charles Henderson Trojan standout has a been a defensive staple for the Auburn Tigers for the last four seasons. As Etheridge prepares to close the book on this collegiate career, he is doing so in hopes of finishing on top.

Auburn is currently undefeated, with the two biggest games of the season on deck – the Iron Bowl and the SEC Championship.

A win in both would send the Tigers to the National Championship game, for a shot at its first title since 1957.

So far, the former All-American said he ‘can’t complain’ on how the season has gone.

“My senior year has been lovely,” Etheridge said.

“It has really been outstanding, all of it. This has been one of those seasons that I am never going to forget. And to even be in the position that I am is something I am really thankful for.”

What makes Etheridge’s senior year even more unforgettable is the fact that it almost never happened. A frightening injury on Halloween during the Ole Miss game left his neck and back damaged and his future uncertain.

After a colliding with Rebel running back Rodney Scott, Etheridge found himself being carried off the field in a stretcher with a neck injury that left him unable to move his extremities.

The hit ended Etheridge’s junior season prematurely and put the rest of his playing career in serious doubt.

“The first thing I thought about after the hit was if I was going to be able to play again,” he said. “That was the main thing.

“I knew it was something that was pretty serious right from the start, but in the end, it was really something that became a humbling experience for me.”

The collision in the end zone left Etheridge with several torn neck ligaments, a cracked fifth vertebrae and several months of rehabilitation.

“It was a process that I am obviously glad worked out for me, but it really allowed me to reflect on a lot of things. I realized that everything can be taken away in an instant. My dreams of playing football were suddenly in doubt. I had to think about what my back up plans were going to be, what I was going to do without football. I was trying to find the positives in the situation.”

But the former Trojan’s determination to get back on the field proved more powerful then any injury.

In July of this year, Etheridge announced he would be returning to the team. On Sept. 4, that determination paid off in the home opener against Arkansas State.

“Running out on the field at the beginning of this season…it felt like I was running out into my first college game all over again. It was an opportunity that I was extremely grateful for and one that I was going to make the most of,” he said.

And that is exactly what the senior has done so far for the Tigers this season, as he is currently the second leading tackler with 53, 33 of which have been solo tackles.

Etheridge has also grabbed two interceptions.

But the statistics the senior has put up are not the only things that has made him stand out this season.

“His leadership is huge,” Auburn head coach Gene Chizik said. “Just the fact that he’s been through all of the things that he’s been through and he’s back on our football team and playing at this level has been really inspirational for our entire team.”

While his team has been a part of the national spotlight for what it has been able to do on the field this season, it has also been in the spotlight for another, more notorious, reason. For the past month, the program has been surrounded by allegations that quarterback Cam Newton and his father, Cecil, received money in his recruitment to Auburn.

“It’s been going around for a while, it’s hard to ignore,” Etheridge said.

“We see it everyday here. Something new comes up and we have to deal with it. But this team is really unaffected by it all. We have each other’s back through thick and thin. We believe in Cam and believe he didn’t do anything. If anything, I think that has made this team stronger – we are working together for one goal and we are a family.”

But with all the pressure surrounding the team, for both the good and the bad, Etheridge said it is not something that has affected him or his football family.

“To be honest, there really has not been too much pressure put on us.

“Each week, we enter a game knowing there is a huge target on our backs. We know we cannot have a step back, especially this late in the season. But everyone is focused on getting the job done and getting to where we want to be in the end. Everyone believes in this team.”