Injured in 2013, three Seminoles thrilled to return to field

Scooter Haggins missed all of 2013 with a knee injury. But he felt good enough by Jan. 6 to warm up on the Rose Bowl field before the national title game, even though he knew he wouldn't play.

Phil Sears

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — They all handled it differently. They didn’t realize how much they loved football until they couldn’t play the game.

Kevin Haplea would watch the games alone. Tyler Hunter sometimes had to walk out of practice. Scooter Haggins couldn’t play, but craved the chance to step on the Rose Bowl field so much that he warmed up before the national championship game.

The three were expected to make significant contributions to Florida State in 2013. But Haplea, a tight end, had a knee injury and was done for the year in June. Haggins, a receiver, had a knee injury in August. Hunter, a safety, suffered a neck injury in the third game of the season.

”I really appreciate the game a lot more now just knowing that any given moment it can be taken away,” Hunter said. ”Just play every play like it’s my last.”

Now, they are preparing for their senior seasons and competing for playing time again.

Hunter feels his career could have ended had he stayed in a Sept. 21 game against Bethune-Cookman with a neck injury. He had surgery and would not be able to play for the rest of the season.

But Hunter made his biggest contribution by being a coach. He spent hours in the film room helping true freshman Nate Andrews learn the defensive schemes. It wasn’t the same as playing, but Hunter felt he was able to contribute by teaching Andrews and the Seminoles’ other young defensive backs.

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”It was big, just knowing that I helped a lot of those guys learn a defense,” Hunter said.

Still, there were moments when not being able to take part in even a midweek practice made him emotional. He recalls walking out of a practice leading up to an October game against North Carolina State.

Haggins knew there was no chance to play at the Rose Bowl in the BCS title game. But his knee began to feel good a few weeks earlier and he decided to put on his uniform, stepped on to the field and ran and cut. He even went through the route tree, running slants, curls, posts and more. No pain.

He prepared as if he would play that night.

”I actually suited up just to go through warm-ups, just to get that feeling with my teammates,” Haggins said. ”It was jitters and butterflies just as if I was going to play.”

Haggins said he felt 100 percent in the weeks leading up to the Jan. 6 title win over Auburn. But as much as he wanted to play, he knew that he would only be able to cheer on the Seminoles’ national championship while preparing for 2014.

Florida State returns a playmaker in Rashad Greene (76 catches, 1,128 yards and nine TDs), but lose a pair of top receivers in Kelvin Benjamin (1,011 yards, 15 TDs) and Kenny Shaw (933 yards, six TDs). To keep the passing game rolling with Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston, FSU needs to find a few more receivers to fill the losses.

Haggins, who will be a senior in the fall, has the most experience of the group and could very well win the starting job as FSU’s slot receiver. Despite wrist, shoulder and knee injuries, Haggins has played in 27 games and has 20 career catches for 206 yards.

”Since I’ve been here it’s been injuries from here and there,” Haggins said. ”But it’s a blessing. It’s the best feeling to get back out there with my bros. To finally get back out there is a relief.”

Haggins has missed a few practices this spring with a nagging hamstring injury. But he will return after some rest and is looking forward both to the spring game on April 13 and the season ahead.

”They are telling me to keep my head strong,” Haggins said. ”They are telling me that they are going to need me this year. So I have to step up to the challenge.”

Haplea said he found a silver lining in the injury. He’s happy that it happened over the summer, giving him plenty of time to rehab. And that it didn’t happen midseason, after a cut-off to take a redshirt.

But still, he often watched road games by himself, at home in Tallahassee. He usually wouldn’t want friends around.

When Florida State opened the season at Pittsburgh on Labor Day, Haplea struggled with the reality of the situation.

”The Pittsburgh game was really, really weird,” Haplea said. ”When I was seeing the guys in the locker room, knowing I’m on that team but I’m not there.”

As the games went by, the group of injured players saw what their teammates had achieved. And each of them were able to travel with the Seminoles to California for the title game and watch from the sidelines as Florida State defeated Auburn 34-31.

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”I was really happy,” Haplea said. ”I was rooting as hard as I could for them out there every day. It was tough not being out there every day. It was tough not being out there just from the standpoint of me wanting to help contribute to the guys and be there for my teammates.”

All three expect to factor into Florida State’s plans in 2014. Hunter will again fight for a starting job at safety. Haggins has a chance to start as a slot receiver. And coaches would like to use more sets with two tight ends, meaning Haplea and Nick O’Leary will be on the field together more often.

They would love to help Florida State repeat as national champions. But for now it’s about getting back to the sport that they love.

”It’s been real exciting just to be able to be out there with the team again,” Hunter said. ”Just being able to play football, it’s a blessing.”

You can follow Bob Ferrante on Twitter @bobferrante or email him at bobferrante17@gmail.com.