CORAL GABLES — In his darkest moments while recovering from a torn ACL and meniscus, late at night when sleep failed to come, Don Chaney Jr. questioned himself.
“I was scared I was going to give up on myself,” Chaney said. “I was like, ‘Bro, I don’t know if I can do this.’ I never had an injury like this. I’ve had a shoulder (injury); that’s nothing. But an injury that can take a year or more to come back from — I was like, ‘Bro, I don’t think I can do this.’”
The knee injury, which he suffered in the second game of the 2021 season, cost Chaney most of his second year at Miami. The recovery was tough for the Homestead native. But he drew strength from his family, motivated himself to provide for his daughter, Ava Rose, and became determined to get back on the field. When the Hurricanes hit the Greentree Practice Fields for the first day of fall camp on Friday, Chaney will be ready.
“It’s like a thing where — you feel me — you sit there, and you’re like, ‘Wow, can you or can you not?’” Chaney said. “I decided to get up and tell myself, ‘Bro, you’ve got this.’
“Every day, I’m in the weight room or every day I’m doing something, I’ve got to get right. If I don’t get back, my daughter can’t eat. My momma can’t eat. Nothing. So that’s just how I went by it the past nine, 10 months.”
Chaney said his recovery process was “ridiculously hard,” and he drew strength from his father, Don Chaney Sr., who would comfort him. He thought of his daughter and knew he needed to work hard to return to the field.
“I’ve got a daughter I’ve got to take care of, and everything I do, I’ve got to do it for her,” Chaney said. That’s the main reasoning for things and why I came back the way I came back. That’s why I came back with the aggression that I have.”
Chaney, who has 79 career carries for 366 yards and four touchdowns, returned to practice in the spring, but he was limited in what he could work on. It wasn’t until near the end of spring practice that he started to feel like his old self again.
“I was like, ‘Wow, I feel pretty normal. I feel like I can go in there and take a lick, take a tackle, break out of a tackle,’ he said.
Mario Cristobal and his staff took over before spring started, and they were already familiar with Chaney. Chaney had a scholarship offer from Cristobal when the new Hurricanes coach was still at Oregon, and running backs coach Kevin Smith recruited Chaney at FAU and Ole Miss.
Smith has offered Chaney first-hand advice on coming back from a tough knee injury. Smith suffered an ACL tear while he was playing for the Detroit Lions and played three more seasons in the NFL.
“I just told him (to) take his time,” Smith said. “Take his time, trust the doctors, trust his support system, trust the training room, trust the rehab, trust the process. It’s not going to happen overnight, but the more you do, you won’t think about it. You’ll make little cuts and you won’t notice it, but then you’ll be able to watch it on tape.”
Smith and Cristobal said the physical healing and rehabilitation following an ACL injury is just one part of recovery. The mental part is difficult, too.
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“When you go through an injury like he had, that there’s difficulty understanding, ‘Man, why did this happen?’ and then, ‘Will this work? It doesn’t feel quite normal yet,’ and ‘When’s the breakthrough?’” Cristobal said. “Well, I think he’s had that over the past six weeks, and you see a guy that’s trimmed down his body, that’s gotten in shape, that is walking around with a really strong demeanor.
“So I see a guy that’s hungry, that has an appetite for competing and for being a tremendous part of what we’re doing this season.”
Chaney is eager to return to the field, and he has the benefit of being able to rely on his teammates for help. He won’t be required to run the ball 300 times for the Hurricanes this season, as UM’s backfield is loaded with talent. Fellow third-year sophomore Jaylan Knighton returns, as does sophomore Thad Franklin Jr.
Miami added Chaney’s former friendly local high school rival, Henry Parrish Jr., as a transfer from Ole Miss, and the Hurricanes signed one of the nation’s top 2022 high school running backs in TreVonte’ Citizen.
“I feel like I’m ready to get back in the action, be in the backfield with my dudes,” Chaney said. “They’re my guys back there.”
Chaney and his teammates are still about a month away from taking the field at Hard Rock Stadium and kicking off the season. Until then, he is focused on getting better in fall camp.
“Right now, we’re not even thinking about Game 1,” Chaney said. “We’re thinking about Practice 1, to be real. Everything’s got to go good on Practice 1, 2, 3, 4. You’ve got to practice before you can play. So I ain’t even worried about the game until it gets here. … I’m ready to get back and get going. I’m ready to showcase what I can do.”