COLLINS: Penn State lineman longs for return to normalcy

The (Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)
Juice Scruggs

Look around, and it's easy to spot someone pining for normalcy these days.

In a nation riddled by uncertainty, in a world fighting a pandemic, nothing is as it used to be. It's a constant fight to get back to old times, even if the old times are just last fall.

Juice Scruggs has been pining for old times a lot longer than everybody else, really. A year before COVID-19 changed everything, everything changed for Penn State's highly regarded backup center.

It was a one-car accident near his home in Ashtabula, Ohio. Scruggs was the driver. He was heading home during spring break in March 2019. He doesn't like to talk much about the scene, but what's important is, he broke the L3 vertebrae. He was supposed to start spring practice a few days later, preparing to make a run at increased playing time as a redshirt freshman. But as he lay in a hospital bed, all he could think about was turning back the clock.

This fall, Scruggs is back on the field backing up veteran center Michal Menet and looking every bit like his heir apparent. Thankful his own form of normalcy in a turbulent time presented itself.

"When it happened, when I was in the hospital, it was hard to believe," Scruggs said. "It didn't seem real. But the whole time in my head I was like, 'Yeah, I've got to get back.' And now that I'm back, I just knew I was going to get here. It just goes to show you that hard work can take you a long way."

Eight months in a back brace: He spent eight months after the accident in a back brace. He needed a scooter for transportation, and even a few steps on his own resulted in "super painful" jolts through his back. He lost 25 pounds off his 295-pound frame within a matter of weeks.

The recovery process advanced in fits and starts.

Just before Penn State left for the Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas, in mid-December, Scruggs felt so good, doctors gave him the green light to get some reps with the team during practices. Then, more cramps and spasms sent him three steps back.

"I was like, 'Oh man, what are we going to do?' " he said. "The trainers just did a wonderful job of staying positive and staying with me, knowing that I was going to get through it. They did a hell of a job."

When the coronavirus spread across the nation, it took the next opportunity for Scruggs to get back on the field during spring practice away from him. It didn't dampen his spirit, though.

Getting rid of the brace: He knew, once that back brace came off, that he had made it. That he'd be able to do it. That life would get back to normal. And when he finally took the field again this fall, he said it felt like Christmas, and that his gift was a daily routine.

"In adversity, there's going to be times that you start doubting yourself and things like that," Scruggs said. "But in my head, I had a great support cast with the team and my family, and everybody that was on my side.

"I knew that I was going to be back and I just kept that in my head that I was just going to be back on the field. I just knew I had something to prove and show people."