FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas linebacker Alonzo Highsmith and fullback Kiero Small are roommates. It’s not the only thing tying the seniors together this fall.
Both are out for the season because of injuries. Small broke the fifth metatarsal in his right foot in early September, while Highsmith suffered a Lisfranc fracture in his right foot one month later. So the conversations at home have changed dramatically since the beginning of the year, when both dreamed of big senior seasons.
“Now we’re just like, ‘Man, can you really believe this?’” Highsmith said in an interview earlier this week. “We just sit back and the only thing we can talk about right now is life. … Because we can’t talk about what we’re going to do anymore.”
Injuries are a cruel reality in football. One Arkansas has witnessed firsthand again and again during a 2012 season that hasn’t lived up to expectations. Highsmith and Small are among four players who have suffered season-ending injuries, joining defensive end Tenarius Wright (shoulder) and fullback Kody Walker (broken leg).
The most difficult part of the Arkansas list is the fact three seniors — and two team captains in Highsmith and Wright — were sidelined before midseason.
Highsmith suffered his injury when he sacked Auburn quarterback Kiehl Frazier in the first quarter of the 24-7 win on Oct. 6. Wright’s shoulder injury, which had been a problem all season, made him relatively ineffective before finally opting for season-ending surgery after playing in just five games.
So both have played their final snaps as Razorbacks.
“This is nowhere near what I expected at all,” said Wright, whose left arm was in a sling Wednesday after undergoing surgery to repair five tears in his labrum.
“The most I can do is put the jersey on and go out and watch the game now. It’s hard knowing you won’t strap it back up with the guys again.”
The situation is not quite as final for Small because the fullback was fortunate in one regard: His foot injury came early enough in his senior season. So he plans to apply for a medical redshirt and a chance to return once again in 2013.
But that didn’t soften the blow of missing 2012 for Small, who was working at fullback and linebacker in preseason camp. He only played one game this season.
“It was crushing,” Small said of his foot injury, which came on a non-contact play during practice on Sept. 5. “A lot more has happened in life to me and other people and stuff, but that was probably one of the things that hurt the most.
“It just took me a minute to get myself together and realize I’ve got to keep helping the team get better and things of that sort.”
It’s the role all three seniors have dedicated themselves to now as Arkansas prepares for the final leg of the regular season. Wright joked he’s “pretending to be a coach” along with the other two seniors, trying to do anything they can to help the Razorbacks without being able to line up on the field in practices and games.
They still participate in position meetings and continue to attend practices. They pass along advice to their younger replacements like freshmen linebackers A.J. Turner and Otha Peters. They remain visible and vocal in the locker room despite being reduced to what Highsmith called “spectator” status in shortened seasons.
“They’re out there every day,” Arkansas coach John L. Smith said. “And they’re out there coaching. We encourage them to be coaching their position. … That’s what we expect out of them and that’s what they’re doing. So they’re a part of it.”
Why do they do it? Wright said it’s an easy answer. They’re still invested.
Arkansas’ season hasn’t gone as expected, but they’ve contributed plenty of blood and sweat in the program the past few years. They don’t want to see teammates fail and plan to do whatever possible to help Arkansas salvage what’s left of the season.
“It’s loyalty. Everyone has each other’s backs,” Wright said. “I’d hate to see a teammate lose hope because we started off bad. Everything is not going to happen the way you want it to happen. But it’s all about you making it happen.”
All three keep each other motivated, too. They spend time together in the training room and weight room, encouraging one another during difficult days.
Small said it’s nice to have some camaraderie, but felt like he was “injured all over again” when Highsmith went down. Coincidentally, Small passed the scooter he needed to wheel around campus on to his roommate after Highsmith’s surgery.
“This isn’t how we planned it,” Small said. “But me and Alonzo also had to go to JUCO before so we both had stuff not go as we planned. He, just like me, is like man it’s something else that happened. We’ve got to put our chin down and keep fighting.”
There’s plenty for them to fight for, too. Small is trying to get back as soon as possible and, while highly doubtful, wouldn’t rule out a return this season. Wright and Highsmith are preparing for something else entirely – the 2013 NFL Draft.
Highsmith admitted to being worried about his pro football future the minute his Arkansas career was over because of the injury. He wasn’t regarded as an early-round draft pick entering his senior season and hoped a big year would improve his draft status. He led the SEC in tackles before the Lisfranc fracture.
“Things happen,” said Highsmith, who added his timeline for complete recovery is roughly four months. “I’ve just got to be ready for whenever the next time I play. Whenever I get a shot, just be ready for when that comes.”
Wright is in a similar spot after spending most of his career at defensive end. He hoped a move to linebacker in 2012 would improve his draft stock, but the shoulder injury left him with plenty of unanswered questions during his final season.
“You never know when your last day on the field will be or when your last play will be,” Wright said. “These five, six games that are left … This is what was promised. The NFL isn’t promised. So for us to miss what is promised is hard.”
But the seniors remain optimistic everything will work out.
They’re confident the rehab process will go well over the next few months. They’re confident they’ll get NFL opportunities despite their injury-shortened seasons.
They’re also confident Arkansas will finish strong even though they can’t help on the Hogs on the field because of season-ending injuries.
“The record might now show just how special this team is,” Small said. “We’ve endured a lot. You could take half of it out and other teams in the country still haven’t seen the stuff we’ve seen. With all of us being hurt, now we’re just a band of guys trying to help motivate the team … because this is a special team.”