N.C. A&T Linebacker Returns After Surgery To Fix Vertebra

By Rob Daniels
Updated: August 29, 2005

N.C. A&T football player Montray Jackson is back after a neck injury. (Joseph Rodriguez/News & Record)GREENSBORO, N.C. — Nobody told him his football days were definitely over.

But nobody would have blamed him if he had simply undergone vertebra-fusion surgery and called it a career. Now the 6-foot-1, 210-pound senior expects to start when the Aggies face N.C. Central at 1:30 p.m. on Labor Day.

“Yeah, football is still my life,” Jackson said. “It was a shock that it happened to me. Something I love so much was taken so quickly. But now I’m back to doing what I was doing before.”


It was nearly a year ago today. The Aggies were in their final week of preparation for the N.C. Central game when Jackson, in his zeal to make an impression during a drill, committed his position’s potentially mortal sin.

He tackled the ball-carrier with his head down, exposing the spinal column to the kind of shock and stress best reserved for an SUV on a rumble strip.

“I didn’t hear anything,” Jackson said. “It felt like everything was happening in slow motion. I was lying there. My teammates were telling me to get up and I was like, ‘I can’t move.’ ” The C-5 vertebra is the moat that protects the castle. It surrounds that portion of the brain that controls the diaphragm. It sits there next to the spinal cord and, when you’re lucky, it absorbs the punishment so that you can keep breathing. Keep walking. Keep moving everything below your chin.

Montray Jackson’s C-5 broke.

Fifteen seconds later, he regained feeling. He is walking, hitting, grunting proof that you can break your neck and joke about it.

“A person can ‘break their back or neck’ yet not sustain a spinal-cord injury if only the bones around the spinal cord (the vertebrae) are damaged, but the spinal cord is not affected,” the National Spinal Cord Injury Association writes on its Web site. “In these situations, the individual may not experience paralysis after the bones are stabilized.”

A long road

On Sept. 7, 2004, the A&T football team left for Mississippi to play Alcorn State. But first, the Aggies offered their best wishes to one of their best players, who was headed for the operating room.

Doctors cut a delicate hole in Jackson’s neck and performed four hours of surgery to fuse the vertebra. In a few days, he was walking to class, his head stabilized by a brace that drew stares from the curious: There goes the linebacker who broke his neck.

“Listening to the games on the radio was tough,” Jackson said.

Of course, it could have been worse.

“I didn’t have anything touching my spine,” Jackson said, “and they cleared me to play in June.”

At about that time, Cornwell, known to his athletes as “The Thing” for his wide neck, broad chest, pesky attitude and knowledge base, came to A&T from the U.S. Military Academy. As a matter of longstanding personal practice, he ordered all the Aggies to begin every weight-training session with exercises to strengthen the neck.

He didn’t yet know he had an especially important client.

“Nobody works harder in the weight room,” Cornwell said of Jackson. “He already had a great attitude. It was nothing special that I did.”

But it was stuff Jackson had never heard before. He needed to learn it, and he learned to need it.

“You have to overcome the mental hurdles, because football is a collision sport and the neck is the shock absorber,” Cornwell said. “The first thing we had to do is convince him that he could actually use his neck again.”

They went at it every day. The Thing grabbed The Linebacker’s head and The Linebacker pushed back in all directions.

Jackson’s dress shirts became obsolete. If your neck size grows by 21/2 inches, it usually means you’re frequenting the local Krispy Kreme.

Not this time.

The scar was slowly diffusing, its dimensions becoming less obvious. Likewise, Jackson was preparing for perhaps the most important moment of his career, one that would go unseen by TV cameras or 25,000 fans in blue and gold.


The “Oklahoma Drill” isn’t fair, really. It matches a team of one ball-carrier and one blocker against a solitary defender who is charged with shedding the block and making the tackle and doing it all in virtually the same space and moment.

It was going to be Jackson’s first serious contact in nearly a year.

“I was hesitant,” he said. “But then we were doing the Oklahoma Drill and I got hyped for it. After that first hit, no holding back.”

Alonzo Lee, Jackson’s position coach and A&T’s defensive coordinator, watched and smiled, confident he’d get his man back.

“It’s not a matter of re-learning technique,” Lee said. “It’s getting past that initial contact. You get a feel for it again. And once you get past that point, you’re situated.

“Now he feels he can sit a house on that neck and withstand it.”

A recurrence of the injury would now be considered a matter of extreme misfortune, an act of random unkindness from the football world. Jackson’s neck is stronger than it was before the injury. The spine remains undamaged.

And The Linebacker is again preparing for N.C. Central one week in advance.

“Now I’m back to doing what I was doing before,” he said. “By Sept. 5, I think the defense will be smoking.”