NASHVILLE, Tenn. — T.J. Heath looked more slender than usual at the Ohio Valley Conference Football Media Day and bore a ubiquitous scar on the right side of his forehead.
But the Alexandria product was at LP Field on Monday, less than a month after being told he would never play football again.
Jacksonville State’s senior cornerback was eager to put his July 3 accident behind him and do what people come to Media Day to do — talk about the coming season.
“It made me appreciate everything a lot more,” he said. “It made me realize it can all be taken away in a blink of an eye.”
Heath was en route back to JSU’s campus after visiting a friend in Gadsden. It was early in the morning.
“I was just going to stay the night,” he said. “But a couple of my friends, they were lights out. I just figured I’m just going to go home and rest up.”
He stopped at McDonald’s to get breakfast, and two Egg McMuffins began to tug on his eyes. He said he dozed briefly while on Highway 204, a narrow and curvy road between U.S. 431 and campus.
Heath’s Toyota 4-Runner edged off the side of the road, toward a ditch. He woke up and instinctively jerked the wheel back, which got him sideways.
The vehicle flipped, about two miles from Heath’s apartment.
He crawled out, walked up a hill and stopped a passerby, who called for help. Paramedics took him to Jacksonville Regional Medical Center, where he was treated for the gash on his head.
But that was the least of his worries.
“They asked me if I could move, and I really couldn’t move,” he said. “They, off the top, just figured my neck was broke.”
Heath was sent to UAB Medical Center, where doctors prepared him for the worst.
“When they first got me to UAB, they told me I wouldn’t play any more,” he said. “That’s the first question I asked. Would I be able to play?
“I cried for a little bit, because they told me it was pretty much over and done with.”
Heath’s mother spent the rest of that first night at UAB consoling him and trying to reassure him about life after football.
The next day, they got much better news.
“The spine doctor came back and said he looked at everything, and all I had was a little whiplash and a fractured jaw,” he said. “I was pretty blessed.”
The jaw fracture wasn’t severe enough to require that his mouth be wired shut. Doctors told him to eat soft food for a few weeks, which accounts for Heath’s losing 15-20 pounds.
He said he’s working back to more solid foods and has gained back about five pounds, up to 175.
Heath said he will go back for a checkup just prior to the Aug. 6 start of fall camp.
What happens from there depends on what doctors say.
JSU coach Jack Crowe said Heath could start out on one practice per day during two-a-days. Heath said he might go lightly the first week.
“Then, probably the second week, I’ll go full out,” he said. “They probably just want me to see how everything goes, as far as me hitting and stuff.”
Crowe said he has no doubt Heath, one of JSU’s top defenders, will be back to full strength by the Sept. 4 season opener at Ole Miss. Heath said he expects to be back around 180 pounds by then.
Though life after football remains down the road, Heath said he remains reassured.
“I’m very blessed that God kept me here,” he said. “He still has a plan for me. I’m guessing that’s why I’m still here.
“I’m looking forward to see what’s in store for me in the future.”