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Oct. 28, 2006

by Peter Goergen, Jr.
Student Assistant, UVa Athletics Media Relations

With each passing second, the 60,000 Wahoos packed into Scott Stadium grew increasingly silent. Cheers turned to whispers as paramedics carried out a stretcher and fastened a neck brace. In the first quarter of Virginia’s game on November 12, 2005, against Georgia Tech, hard-hitting UVa safety Nate Lyles was on the ground, motionless.

“It was a play I had envisioned happening all throughout the week, me blowing it up,” Lyles said. “As I went to hit [Georgia Tech running back P.J. Daniels], I lowered my head, and after that I just hit the ground face first. I tried to roll over, and I knew I was hurt, but I couldn’t move.”

“It was real, real scary when I saw him go down, and he wasn’t moving for a while.” safety Ryan Best said. “I just got down and prayed with the rest of the team.”

As medical personnel carted Lyles off the field, the 6-0, 203-pound safety summoned the strength to give a “thumbs up” to the concerned crowd.

“After I was on the stretcher, I could pretty much feel and have control of my body,” Lyles said. “I knew that everybody was worried about me, and I just wanted them to know that I would be alright.”

A native of Chicago, Lyles also comforted his mother, who had made the trip to Charlottesville from the Windy City to see him play, as he passed her in the stadium tunnel.

“She was actually pretty calm,” Lyles said. “I told her that I was getting my feeling back and that I would be fine.”

An ambulance rushed Lyles straight to the UVa Hospital, and after running an MRI and other tests, doctors told Lyles that he had a bulging disk in his vertebra, which caused him to loose feeling in his body.

“I was scared,” Lyles said. “I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t know with the situation at the time that I would ever play again.”

From the time of the injury until last December, Lyles couldn’t rehab or participate in any football-related activities, but he continued to travel with the team and attend practice.

“I hadn’t done anything else since my freshman year, so I felt like it would be weird for me not to be at the games,” Lyles said. “It hurt enough for me not to be playing, so I think that’s why coach Groh granted it to me.”

But Lyles was determined to get off the sideline and back onto the field. The safety dedicated himself to rehabbing and getting back into shape, and by the first day of summer workouts, he was ready to roll.

“It was important for me to get with my team doing football related things and just working out,” Lyles said. “It meant a lot. I think I had the most fun out of anybody out there, just because I hadn’t worked out with the team in so long.”

Lyles led the defense through summer workouts, but the real test in his comeback attempt came a couple of days into training camp when the pads came out, and the contact drills began.

“I wasn’t worried at all,” Lyles said. “I was ready to get on the field. The coaches and trainers were a little bit more worried than I was, but as soon as we put on the pads, I was trying to get as much contact as possible, so I could let them know that I was alright.”

“I didn’t have to watch very long,” Groh said. “Nate answered any questions real early. I didn’t pay much attention for two days, but as soon as he put his pads on, there was a Nate Lyles sighting, and he’s been the same old Nate ever since.”

When Lyles stepped foot onto the field again as a starter in Virginia’s defensive secondary against Pittsburgh to begin the 2006 season, the safety knew that his return to football was complete.

“It meant so much to me,” Lyles said. “That was one of the best moments of my life. I was out there playing football without any worries if I would be alright. I was with my boys and my team. It just felt like I belonged there.”

“I thought he was the same old Nate,” Best said. “He was doing all the same stuff, playing the way he always does. It was just real good to see him out there.”

This season, Lyles picked up where he left off last year, leading all UVa defensive backs in tackles and sacks.

“I try to be the same player I was and get better every week,” said Lyles, whose comeback has served as inspiration to all UVa fans, coaches, and players.

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