A Cruel and Physical Game

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Denzel Wells was two - three at the max - superb workouts from officially turning the corner.

The physical transformation he'd undergone between the time he first arrived on South Main until the start of his second fall camp was as obvious as Houston humidity. Slabs of lean muscle encased his limbs, lending credence to discussions of Wells' offseason dedication in the weight room.

After walking an academic tightrope that led to his missing the majority of last spring's practices, Wells was reborn as a quintessential student-athlete during the summer months, approaching every task that entailed his representing Rice University with a renewed vigor.

Unable to catch a cold in a sick ward last August, Wells displayed a remarkably reliable set of hands during the Owls' opening two practices over last weekend. Those who had watched Wells struggle as a freshman receiver could not help but to be smitten with every step he took in the right direction. Maybe it was down the line, but stardom seemed to be beckoning Wells.

And then on Monday night, during the Owls' first workout in shoulder pads, Wells felt his right shoulder dislocate while executing a routine drill. He shed his pads, was fitted with an ice pack, and returned to practice the following night with a shoulder harness and a confident gait. He was convinced that the injury was minor, but when asked to perform strength tests on Wednesday the shoulder failed to cooperate. It dislodged from its socket time and again, and additional tests revealed what no one wanted to hear: Wells needed season-ending surgery.

"I was having a good first two days - no dropped passes - and then this happens on a drill, a freak-of-nature accident," Wells said. "I can't help but to be (upset).

"The educated part of me wants to look at the glass as half-full and that maybe this happened for a reason. I can protest and get my medical redshirt and stay another four years, be 24 (years old) and graduate and do the James Casey thing and get more experience. But there is a side of me that thinks this is bull, for a lack of a better word."

The latter side had Wells sitting on the bench during Period 11 with his head drooped between his shoulders, the picture of dejection. The previous side enabled him to talk about the surgery he will undergo next Wednesday (a procedure that will sideline him for 4 to 6 months) all while sharing dreams of his name being etched in the All-American Ring of Honor at Rice Stadium.

On one hand it's tempting to assume that Wells' engaging personality will carry him through what will likely be a torturous rehabilitation. In the same vein it is abundantly clear that Wells will need the support of his coaching staff and teammates to manage the discouragement that will surely engulf him once he reflects on just how far he'd come and just how close he was.

"When you get a young man that gets hurt, all of a sudden they don't feel like they are a part of it," Owls coach David Bailiff said. "Even as much as we try to tell them they are, because they're not out here getting the reps they'll get a little depression if you don't include them and bring them into your office. This is where it's a combined effort of the staff to let him know how important he is here, and try to educate him on the bigger pictures on down the road."

Before the injury Wells, who redshirted last year, was vying for reps in the absence of senior Corbin Smiter, who is rehabbing from early-July sports hernia surgery. Wells was locked in a battle with junior Taylor Dupree, and after showcasing improvement with route running and catching, he seemed primed to carve out a spot in the rotation. With a total of 18 receivers and tight ends in camp, distinguishing oneself is an arduous task. Wells was doing precisely that.

Now, with his dream deferred, Wells will need to rely on something other than his impressive strength and exceptional speed. The maturity he developed off the field must be his guide.

"You come in and it's a maturation process," Wells said. "You come in young and the coaches form you into what you are now, and you sit back able to look at it from a different perspective and say, 'It is what it is, and I've got to react as a man.' The trials and tribulations that you go through in life make you a man, not necessarily your age. Just being here on a campus like Rice, you mature fast. Being here and wanting to step up increases your maturation process.

"I've definitely matured since I've been here, that's why I'm able to look at this injury as a growing process more than something bad. Basically this is quicksand, and I've got to kick my way out of it. It's all psychological; if I let myself get down mentally, then physically I'm not going to heal. I have to be optimistic and know that I'm going to heal quickly."

Wells' optimism doesn't make the first dose of terrible news from camp any less disappointing.

"He will have a big-time career here," Bailiff said. "This is really a tragedy for us."

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Great piece, MK. Denzel has boundless potential, and since he is a speed merchant WR, I am just thankful the injury was to his shoulder and not his knee or ankle. He should be able to come back 100% next year and be a major contributor.

Best wishes on a speedy recovery, DW. Sounds like your head is already in the right frame of mind to persevere through this setback. Rice is certainly fortunate to have you as a representative of the university.

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