MADISON, Wis. — On the worst days, Devin Gaulden remembers crying in front of his parents during a rehabilitation assignment. He had recently endured surgery to repair a torn ACL in his right knee, and here he was, a once carefree college athlete unable to lift his leg over a water bottle.
"It was extremely tough," Gaulden said at a recent spring practice. "The toughest days, it was mentally draining knowing you can’t walk. You can’t get out of bed just to use the bathroom."
Fast forward some 18 months later, and the tears have made way for pure, unadulterated joy. Despite enduring three fractured patella injuries in the same knee since the ACL surgery, he has battled back and emerged as a frontrunner to play at cornerback for Wisconsin, which is in need of help in the secondary.
The fact Gaulden is even in position to contribute is not lost on him given all the work he’s put in.
"I felt like I lost a part of me," Gaulden said. "Like it was a death in the family or something like that. Your sense of security and things like that, I was walking around campus a little empty, not being able to get excited with the rest of my teammates. It means the world to me, just being out here with my teammates."
Gaulden sustained the ACL injury back on Sept. 22, 2012, during a game against UTEP, when he felt his right leg stick into the turf while making a tackle on special teams. The road to recovery was not easy because he kept injuring his patella, first while doing squats in the weight room and later while performing drills after coaches told him to rest.
In his college career, the redshirt junior from Miramar, Fla., has appeared in 10 games and made five tackles. Yet he appears primed to make a run at serious playing time
Badgers defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said he anticipated Gaulden working in as the team’s third cornerback, which would allow the Badgers to play a nickel package with Darius Hillary. And though Aranda didn’t know much about Gaulden before spring camp because he was unable to perform last season, he’s already been impressed.
"He’s quick," Aranda said. "He’s strong. He’s a headsy player. So I think there’s field boundary potential with him."
Aranda is in his second year in charge of the Badgers’ defense, and Gaulden is excited about what he’s seen.
"I definitely like the aggressive style he’s bringing to the defense," Gaulden said. "A lot of press coverage. A lot of press man bump and run. I feel that’s a strength of mine is getting up and having the confidence to challenge receivers and put my hands on receivers. So that’s a huge complement to my name. I feel like that’s a big part of what I love about this defense."
Gaulden has been so eager for this opportunity that he often had to be held back my coaches and teammates to prevent over-doing his rehab. The one player Gaulden said he leaned on more than anyone else was former quarterback Curt Phillips, who endured his share of ACL injuries. Phillips tore his ACL on three separate occasions and served as a mentor to many players.
"Curt was a big, spiritual, uplifting person," Gaulden said. "He’d just keep me going. There were times where I tried to be extra tough. And Curt used to tell me, ‘No, get out of here, go home and rest your knee.’ So Curt was a big part of my process coming back."
Since Gaulden has returned, teammates have taken notice of his overwhelming joy.
"He’s been itching to get out on the field ever since I can remember," Badgers linebacker Derek Landisch said. "He rehabbed like crazy. He’s always in the rehab room. You can just tell he’s excited. In the locker room, he’s in my pod. He’s always excited for practice, and I’m hoping he has a really good spring."
Badgers safety Michael Caputo, who moved back to the secondary because of depth issues after trying outside linebacker this spring, hopes Gaulden can add another piece to the team’s defensive puzzle. Caputo saw Gaulden’s capabilities three years ago during offseason workouts.
"He can bring a lot," Caputo said. "I remember when we came in as freshmen. Freshman summer, he was locking down Nick Toon and Jared Abbrederis back a couple years ago. I can see it now that he’s still got it, and he’s a lot faster and stronger now that he’s been rehabbing, working out. It’s good to see him back."
Gaulden said he had only two goals for the 2014 season.
"As far as short-term goals, just get there," he said. "Get to the start of the season. Be healthy. And my second is to make an impact and contribute to the team, whether that’s special teams, on the defense, whatever. Just contribute to the team and help us get wins."
He’ll no doubt be doing so with a smile on his face.