MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — For illustration of Terrell Chestnut’s never-back-down philosophy, rewind to his sophomore season at Pottsgrove High School, to a teammate’s interception, and to the runback that ensued.
“I was being dumb,” Chestnut recalled. “I felt like I was big and bad, so I went to block the biggest lineman and he ran me over.”
That’s when Chestnut believes he initially weakened his shoulder, the one he finally dislocated as a senior resulting in a torn labrum. The same labrum he tore again during his freshman camp at West Virginia, leading to a redshirt season.
It wasn’t the last or the worst of Chestnut’s injuries. That distinction occurred in the 2012 Pinstripe Bowl—a spiritless night for the WVU football program and a debilitating one for the cornerback whose third career start ended in the first quarter with a torn ACL.
During the hours after surgery, Chestnut deliberated on his bad luck, calculating the months of rehab ahead and realizing he wouldn’t be fully recovered for the 2013 season.
“I think there was a time when I was laying in a hospital bed after my surgery, that I was questioning whether I was going to play football again or whether I even wanted to put my body through it again,” he said. “You only get one body … and I was 21 years old feeling like I was 50.”
“In a hospital bed after my surgery, I was questioning whether I was going to play football again or whether I even wanted to put my body through it again. I was 21 years old feeling like I was 50.” — West Virginia cornerback Terrell Chestnut
Doubt can rid an athlete of his swagger, can stamp out his aggression and essentially make him a has-been. Emerging from a period of brooding, Chestnut decided he didn’t want to be a has-been, not at 21, not two years after coming to West Virginia as one of the top-rated recruits in Pennsylvania.
He recovered mentally but the knee required more time. Chestnut wasn’t cleared to play until the third game of last season, a juncture by which he wasn’t to be found on the 2-deep.
“Yeah, I was very frustrated,” he admitted. “Coming out of high school I had my head held high, because in high school I was the man. And then here I was at the bottom of the totem pole, and I was like dirt because of all the injuries.”
From the bottom, Chestnut began his climb thanks to some relatable affirmation from cornerbacks coach Brian Mitchell, who had endured knee and shoulder injuries himself and had the scars to prove it.
“He told me just keep fighting,” Chestnut said. “That was the biggest thing.”
And in search of his big turnaround came a chain of small victories—battles against pain and impatience to push a bit further than the previous day. Out of the rotation at cornerback, Chestnut sought to assert himself on special teams, ripping a fumble away from Texas Tech kick returner Austin Stewart.
“Last season I wanted to make sure I contributed in some way,” he said. Entering this, his junior year, he unapologetically “wanted to have a bigger role.”
Two weeks ahead of West Virginia’s opener against No. 2-ranked Alabama, Chestnut’s role has grown considerably. He’s moving like he did before the knee injury and scrapping to make tackles in run support, and with 2013 starter Icky Banks being held out of practice for a reported academic issue, Chestnut has worked repeatedly with the first-team defense. Competing with Travis Bell for a starting spot, he’s at the bottom of the totem pole no longer.
“It feels great just to have my name called again,” Chestnut said. “It’s been two years since I really played corner in a Big 12 game.”
After Saturday’s scrimmage, Mitchell evaluated Chestnut as fundamentally sound, adding that he “has enough lateral quickness and enough top-end speed to be effective because he’s never going to have any mental letdowns.” Beyond the mechanics and techniques, though, Mitchell offered a more telling description: “He’s a warrior.”
And Chestnut has the scars to prove it.