Sooners' Reynolds returns to site of latest injury
When the 20th-ranked Sooners (3-2, 1-0 Big 12) return to Dallas this Saturday for their annual rivalry game against No. 3 Texas (5-0, 2-0), Reynolds will walk down the tunnel and onto the same field where his season ended a year ago. He'll stand on the same Cotton Bowl sideline where he had to watch his defense fall apart without him.
But he can't stay away.
"I've played football my whole life and couldn't imagine not playing football when I'm able to," Reynolds said.
Reynolds, the Sooners' starting middle linebacker, made up his mind the same day as last year's 45-35 loss to the Longhorns that he was going to make a third comeback. He had already had surgery twice to fix torn ligaments in his left knee suffered in spring practice in 2006 and 2007, and this time it was the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee that was going to put him under the knife.
He told his parents after the game that he wanted to play again.
"Ryan's a fighter. You know whatever happens to him, he's going to come back at you full speed," outside linebacker Travis Lewis said. "That just shows what kind of a person he is, really."
Reynolds' absence was immediately evident. After Oklahoma opened the second half with by forcing Texas to go three-and-out, the Sooners' offense scored to go up 28-20. Reynolds was injured on the first play of the next drive, and the Longhorns would score on each of their last four possessions to claim the Golden Hat trophy.
"It was huge for us. He called the defense. He made the checks. He told everybody what's coming," Lewis said. "When he went out, there was really nobody to call the defense. We were making calls the wrong way. We weren't making the checks that we were supposed to."
After getting checked out by the team's medical staff, Reynolds remained on the sideline with his helmet on. Through his head ran thoughts of whether he'd be able to play again.
"I was just real emotional and I kind of wanted to hide away and keep my thoughts to myself," Reynolds said.
His teammates, meanwhile, felt the void not only because of his ability to make sure they were in the right spots before the snap but their emotional ties to Reynolds.
"He was the leader whenever he got hurt," outside linebacker Keenan Clayton said. "When he went off the field, Ryan, he was the leader in the film room, he was the leader on the field at practice, whenever he wasn't participating. It's just in his blood. Ryan, he's a leader. Ryan came in here and picked up a role as a leader even as a young guy.
"All of the guys on the defense look up to Ryan."
Now that he's healthy again, Reynolds is right back in the middle of Oklahoma's defense. His 39 tackles and three sacks both rank second on the team, and he also has an interception and a forced fumble this season.
"I think it's a great story," defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. "Everybody in our family thinks it is. How can't you have respect and admiration? I mean, I don't have his kind of toughness and I'd be willing to believe that a lot of people out there don't have his kind of toughness and what's in there."
Reynolds, who has applied to the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility because of his injuries, admits that there are still nagging effects from the knee surgeries. When there's a lull in the game, his knee can get stiff.
Venables, who's in charge of the Sooners' linebackers, is quick to defend Reynolds against suggestions that he's slowed down. Reynolds was one of the few players Venables has ever graded out at 100 percent - one game before last year's Red River Rivalry - and he approached his coach seeking areas he could have improved.
"I question the type of people that want to question him, that take a moment of their breath and their life to say anything in a negative way," Venables said. "Are there issues? Probably so. I think that you would assume that, right? The guy's gone through three knee surgeries.
"All I know is that when he's out there on the field, we play pretty dang good and he's the best we've got out there and we like having him out there."