By David Brandt/The Associated Press
HATTIESBURG — The two huge scars that run down the sides of Tim Green’s neck have faded slightly over the months.
That doesn’t mean the Southern Miss linebacker has forgotten how lucky he is to be running around a football field on a steamy Friday morning that marked the Golden Eagles’ first preseason practice.
Green and defensive end Deddrick Jones returned to the field for their first practice at full strength eight months after being shot in an off-campus altercation in November, just hours after the Golden Eagles upset nationally-ranked Central Florida.
Linebacker Martez Smith was paralyzed from the waist down in the shooting. He has since graduated from Southern Miss, but returned to watch practice from the sideline.
“It was amazing to be back out there with your teammates, running around with my helmet on,” Green said. “I saw Martez as I ran out onto the field and I shouted his name. He had a big smile. That was pretty emotional.”
The three players were in the parking lot at Remington’s Hunt Club in Hattiesburg when the shooting occurred. The alleged shooter, Travis Brown, was arrested days after the incident and is still in Forrest County Jail on three aggravated assault charges. The club has since been shut down.
Green, a 6-foot-3, 229-pound senior, was shot in the neck and couldn’t speak for several days after the shooting, writing messages to family and friends. He didn’t get his voice back for several weeks, but has since made a full recovery except for the scars.
“Every day when I look in the mirror I see it,” Green said. “It’s something I’ll never be able to get away from. There was a time when the doctors weren’t sure if I’d ever play football again because they weren’t sure I’d be able to breathe right. But it’s been a miracle. It’s made me appreciate life so much more.”
Jones, a 6-foot-3, 272-pound senior defensive lineman, was shot in the chest. Even after the initial wound healed, he had a long recovery trying to regain strength in his upper body since he couldn’t lift weights for several months. But he said his chest and arm muscles have returned to normal, and his maximum lifts in the weight room are back to their previous levels.
The Golden Eagles were in the first day of the NCAA’s mandated acclimation period of preseason practice, and won’t wear pads until Sunday.
“I’m all the way back — full attack,” Jones said with a wide grin. “It was tough to stay focused sometimes because there were setbacks and days it never felt like it’d get back to normal. I can’t wait until Sunday when I get to hit somebody. It’s been a long, long time.”
Jones and Green figure to be important parts of a defense that switching from a 3-4 formation to a 4-2-5 under new defensive coordinator Dan Disch, who came to the Golden Eagles from Illinois. Jones made 27 tackles last season, including 3.5 for a loss. Green made seven tackles on defense and special teams.
Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora said it was crucial that his players learn the defense quickly.
“We don’t have a year,” Fedora said. “We’ve never said from the beginning that we’ve got a year for the learning curve. We gave them the spring. And then over the summer our guys kept at it and now we’re ready to go.”
At least on the first day of practice, Fedora liked what he saw.
“It’s going to be on day one,” Fedora said. “The challenge for us is what we’re doing on day 13, day 15 or day 20. I think everyone in the country had a good first day — and so did we. But now I want to see what happens from this point. If we have that same energy all the way through (preseason), we’ll be special.”
Fedora said seeing Green, Jones and Smith back at practice made the day even more special. Smith lives back home in Canton, Miss., where he is continuing his rehabilitation.
“Both (Green and Jones) are full speed and haven’t hesitated a bit,” Fedora said. “Martez is back in town to talk to the guys and make sure they’re doing well. He’s doing well. He’s rehabbing and he’s got goals ahead of him.”