GAINESVILLE — In the early days last fall, after the most serious of the multiple injuries Matt Patchan has sustained since arriving in Gainesville, there was pain, disappointment, frustration, even anger.
But there was never any doubt. Not even a shred about whether he would return.
The Armwood High alum tore his right knee ligaments apart in a noncontact drill in September. It required 12 incisions during major surgery and nearly a year of rehabilitation. It was the third injury he had sustained in his Gators career.
But this one was different. The junior offensive lineman knew it the moment he felt the snap during a blocking drill.
"This injury was so much more severe than any injury I've ever had," Patchan said. "This was the worst. People ask me all the time about all the different things. My knee was horrific. I had 13 structures damaged, completely torn. There was a long list of things. I tore my ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) and LCL (lateral collateral), my PCL (posterior cruciate), my IT (iliotibial) band, my cartilage, my meniscus. My hamstring tore off the bone. The state of the injury was my knee hyperextended 40 degrees. It was pretty bad. Right away, it was like 'Aw man. Another thing.' "
It might have been easy to just give up this time. After all, it was the latest in a long list that included a torn chest muscle, gunshot wound to his left shoulder and a previous left knee injury. Yet any thoughts Patchan may have had of sitting around feeling sorry for himself or worrying about the future were put aside when his father, Matt Patchan Sr., stepped in. A former Miami Hurricanes player, the elder Patchan refused to let his son give up.
"Based on my experience from having played, I was able to be around guys that I saw were injured similarly and see what they had been through," his father said. "It really is psychologically crushing for a guy when he's injured and not playing. It's the worst. I was able to see how some guys dealt with it and remind my son that there have been productive and great guys, great players that have come out of it on the other end. But they just had to put in their time and have patience and persistence."
Armed with that mentality, Patchan, 20, began the challenge of trying to repair his knee and return to the game he loves. His teammates knew deep down he was in pain.
"It really downed him when he got hurt because he wanted to be a great player," senior offensive lineman Marcus Gilbert said. "He wanted to take that role and be a starter. But he got hurt, and he didn't think he would be able to recover as fast as he did. Now that he's back in that role, I think he's happy, and I think he's going to take advantage of it."
He has made it this far back with determination and hard work. He underwent daily rehabilitation and various therapies, including oxygen treatments. Known for his nutritional fanaticism, he maintained a healthy eating regimen to keep his body strong. When practice began Thursday, Patchan was part of the starting rotation, including at left tackle.
"We owed it to him that he was starting when he came back healthy," senior center Mike Pouncey said.
"He's great mentally and emotionally," offensive coordinator and line coach Steve Addazio added. "He's really doing well."
His father has watched with admiration the way Patchan has fought his way back. Now he wants him to remember how far he has come.
"We're extremely proud of him to put himself in the position where he's going to be able to compete for the starting job again," he said. "We're just proud of him because he's had so many bad breaks since he's come there. … I think the key for him this year is to not so much get caught up in where he is right now, but embrace the process."
Patchan said he's in the middle of a "good period" in his life, which includes being completely healthy for the first time in more than a year. He's confident his return will be good for him as well as the Gators.
"I obviously want to make sure I've prepared myself in the offseason to stay injury free to help the team," he said. "But really, I want to be as much of a contributor to everything that I can and prove to the coach and everybody that I can be a dominating force when I'm healthy. That's all I want. I just want to do the best I can and max out my potential. If I can do that, I can go to sleep well every night."