Austin Roberts sat in the UCLA training room last summer, trying to come to terms with his situation. The freshman receiver was two days removed from sustaining a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. The start of his college career would be delayed by a year.
"I just started crying like a baby," Roberts said. "A lot of things were going through my mind. I didn't get a chance to do anything yet and I'm already hurt."
Players drifted by offering words of encouragement. Then Eldridge Massington, a fellow receiver, sat down.
Massington had faced a similar situation. He missed his freshman season in 2013, also with a torn ligament in his left knee. He knew what Roberts was feeling, and what he needed to hear.
"He had to stay strong mentally," Massington said. "I didn't want him to go down the path of depression."
Massington has remained a voice in Roberts' ear, and has been an example to him on the field. His comeback complete, Massington has 24 receptions, tying him for third on the team, for 354 yards and two touchdowns.
"It gives me hope, that maybe one day I can get to where he's at now," Roberts said. "It keeps me working hard."
Massington had been a star receiver at West Mesquite High in Texas when, the summer before his senior season, he was injured while participating in a football camp.
He had accepted a scholarship offer from USC, but, he recalled, "I hadn't signed a letter of intent, I was going to have surgery, I didn't know what would happen."
USC said it would honor the scholarship offer, so Massington's plan was to enroll during the winter so he would have a state-of-the-art facility for his rehabilitation.
Lane Kiffin, USC's coach at the time, called to say that early enrollment was not going to be possible. "They had three or four guys who weren't able to graduate, so they didn't have a spot for me until summer," Massington said. "I wanted to get my rehab started."
UCLA offered that chance. But Massington had a long road ahead. Hours of rehabilitation left him feeling depressed at times.
"It was stressful," Massington recalled. "That kind of injury was a humbling experience. It made me appreciate the game, not take it for granted."
When he was ready to play again, this past spring, he still had to wear a knee brace. Massington said it was like running with an ankle weight.
But his work paid off in UCLA's opener at Virginia when, on the Bruins' first play, quarterback Brett Hundley hit Massington for a 48-yard gain.
"That's when I knew I could play again," Massington said.
There have been additional spotlight moments with an 80-yard touchdown reception against Arizona State and a 40-yard touchdown catch against Utah.
Massington's work with Roberts might end up being his biggest contribution.
"Eldridge is a guy who pays it forward," said Eric Yarber, UCLA's receivers coach. "He knows his injury happened for a reason. Maybe one of those reasons was so he could help somebody else."
Roberts was injured while working out in June. Running a pass pattern, he got tangled with a defender and crumpled to the turf.
"Luckily, Eldridge caught me right at my most vulnerable time, right after the injury," Roberts said.
It was not a coincidence. Massington said he knew from his own experience that the first few days was "when the depression starts. You get hit with reality. You think, 'Wow, am I ever going to be able to play?' I wanted to make sure I got to him early."
Massington offered more than keep-your-chin-up advice. Among other things, he explained the value of stairs. Massington said he climbed the six flights to his dorm room as soon as he was able.
Roberts had only two flights to climb, but he understood the point. "I was going to use the elevator for a couple weeks," Roberts said, "but he told me that. I went, 'OK, I'm going to use the stairs and climb hills.' "
Roberts said Massington warned him some days would be tougher than others, and it would be a challenge to stay motivated.
"I wanted him to keep his head right," Massington said.
Roberts expects to be cleared for non-contact workouts next spring and be competing for playing time, alongside Massington, during summer training camp.
Massington sees Roberts as a welcomed addition, not a threat to his own playing time.
"The guy has smooth hands," Massington said. "He can play."
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