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Fractured but not fallen: Jamire Calvin’s return to the field at Washington State was a tumultuous two-year battle

“Once you have blind faith in God … you see your blessings come to fruition and manifest things, you can walk with a different type of confidence because you’re just sure, you know what you’re capable of and you know what you’ve been working for, praying for.” – Jamire Calvin

Jamire Calvin owes the past 20 months of his life to three things: patience, blind faith and a big metal screw.

He’s not sure where he’d be otherwise – another promising athlete derailed by a freak accident, a few painful hurdles short of realizing his childhood dream to play professional football.

Calvin hasn’t spent much time letting his mind wander there. It does no good for someone so intently focused on the future to linger on a murky past.

“I don’t think about it at all because if you think about an injury, it’s just going to happen again,” Calvin said. “I just try to play with no fear and just play football. It’s what I’ve been doing my whole life. I don’t try to think about it too much, like I’ve been hurt. I can get hurt again. I don’t really have that mindset at all. I like to be confident and sure, no matter the circumstance. A lot of people get hurt, it’s football. A lot of people bounce back and some people don’t.

“I always promised myself I would never be somebody that would let that tear me down from my goals.”

On Dec. 28, 2018, the father of Washington State’s redshirt junior wide receiver was up on his feet nearly 20 rows behind the Cougars’ end zone at the Alamodome in San Antonio. As a haze of rainbow-colored confetti, balloons and white smoke permeated the air, Zaire Calvin held his phone out to capture the postgame scene of WSU’s thrilling 28-26 Alamo Bowl victory over Iowa State – a digital keepsake that lasts a lifetime.

Competing with the hum of tubas, trumpets and bass drums down below, Zaire howled with elation.

“Yeeeeeah!” he can be heard saying in the video. “We’ve got a ring. … We’ve got a ring, homie! A bowl ring!”

No, this wasn’t the mountaintop for his son, once a highly coveted four-star recruit who flirted with Nebraska before choosing the Cougars over the Cornhuskers, Notre Dame, Texas, Oregon, Washington, Michigan State and more than a few dozen others. But Zaire, who coaches at Muir High in Pasadena, California, knows a precious milestone when he sees one.

Later on in the 7-minute clip, Zaire, surrounded by other family members, can be heard delivering a two-word confession: “Proud daddy!”

One milestone down, infinity to go for his self-motivated, exceptionally gifted, goal-oriented son.

But, both literally and metaphorically, the rainbow balloons and confetti stopped falling on Calvin that night in south-central Texas. The next year and a half of the player’s life was not defined by big-time touchdown catches, dazzling juke moves or glossy bowl rings, but instead by unlucky missteps, hospital beds and deep prayers.

A few months after WSU’s Texas takeover, the Cougars were back out on the practice field for “Midnight Maneuvers,” the strenuous winter training period Mike Leach’s teams use to build strength, speed and stamina in the offseason – often outdoors in piercing conditions. Calvin was in the middle of an agility drill, shuffling through plastic hoops when he lost his footing on the cold, crusty turf of Rogers Field.

The way he remembers it, “My foot had got caught in the snow and in between the turf and it kind of just ‘kush,’ came down wrong. Kind of wrong and got stuck.”

Doctors diagnosed Calvin with a break between the base and fifth metatarsal of his foot, also known as a Jones fracture. Surgeons drilled a metal screw into his foot and suggested Calvin recover for six to eight weeks — or the entirety of WSU’s spring training period. This was a rare setback for someone whose history of athletic injuries could fit on a fortune cookie shred. Other than a broken arm suffered during his final game of Pop Warner football as an eighth-grader, which healed before his freshman high school season, Calvin had been clean.

Though was discouraged, Calvin wasn’t defeated. There’d be enough time to rehab the foot and rebuild his strength at home in Southern California, where Zaire, a former college football player, runs a training program called Xtreme Athletics that was originally founded with his son’s athletic career in mind.

All went according to plan – until the plan was rudely disrupted.

“Then in the summer, I re-fractured it again,” Calvin said.

After months of recovery, Calvin was back on the field, whizzing around the same way he had during a sophomore season that saw him catch 42 passes for nearly 500 yards and one touchdown, helping the Cougars reach 11 wins for the first time in school history. WSU players who’d already returned to campus were working through 7-on-7 scrimmages. One afternoon, Calvin and quarterback Gage Gubrud stayed after to get more work.

“We were running routes and I just ran a regular route and I just felt the pressure and I kind of felt a pop again,” Calvin said. “The same feeling as before.”

The physical pain wasn’t much different, but the mental and emotional anguish Calvin faced over the next five months was understandably more severe.

How could lightning strike twice for someone who’d gone 12 years with just a single injury, often while juggling three sports?

“I think it was harder the second time because the first time you go in there, you tell yourself you’ll never be back here,” he said. “I never expected it to be me.”

When Calvin’s foot was repaired the first time, surgeons used an intramedullary screw fixation procedure to hold the bone in place. It held, but not long enough, causing the second fracture. So in September, when Calvin should have been making more big plays in the Air Raid offense, he was instead back at the same hospital, for the same procedure, with the same surgeons he’d encountered six months earlier. Using a larger screw, surgeons anticipated Calvin would avoid a third fracture.

The Cougars had already played four games without their dynamic slotback by the time he went in for the surgery. On Sept. 21, he watched them concede a 32-point lead during a 67-63 loss to UCLA, the school that plays its home games in Calvin’s hometown of Pasadena. On Sept. 24, he was cooped up in a hospital bed, unable to have a normal college 21st birthday.

“So all of it was heart-wrenching,” Zaire said. “The maturity he showed through all this, to be like, ‘I can’t even go home, I can’t do this, I’m going to be on crutches on my birthday.’ … That’s a testament to his character and how strong he really is. … He showed strength. He has this inner strength that goes so much deeper than the average person. Especially for him to be that young.”

It was rock bottom for a football player who, two years earlier, had tweeted out a photo of himself with fellow Los Angeles native and former WSU wideout Gabe Marks, writing in a caption “The torch has been passed. Washington State Record Holder with the future Record Breaker. #GoCougs #WeWorking”

Anyone who’s only seen Calvin on the field may be able to identify his precision, quick feet and electric playmaking ability, but those that know him on a more intimate level would describe his quiet confidence, private persona and general independence.

It’s easy to imagine why the boy who walked before he crawled wasn’t inclined to ask others for a hand, even as he navigated more than half the year with a wretched scooter, metal crutches and a heavy, plastic boot attached to his right leg.

“When he was 7½ months, he literally just got up and started walking,” Zaire said. “He literally skipped crawling. He would just watch how people walk and decided it was time to walk.

“He’s definitely self-motivated, so that’s really hard for him. And I’m surprised he would even try, because he’s that kind of kid. I’ll figure it out, I’ll just hop down the stairs, hold my scooter on my back. Instead of just going, ‘Hey, can you help me?’ He’s humble enough to do it, because he’s always feeling like, ‘I don’t want to burden anybody.’ ”

Now the high school recruit whose 20-yard shuttle was clocked at 3.98 seconds – a number that would’ve ranked second at this year’s NFL scouting combine – needed a friend to help him climb the stairs of his apartment complex which came after said friend gave him a ride home. Calvin was usually able to hobble to his first class, but if the next one was too far away, he couldn’t always beat the bell. Sometimes he showed up late, sometimes not at all.

“The hardest part was honestly just being where your feet are, because you can look forward and say when I heal up, it is what it is,” Calvin said. “It’s easy then, but when you’re in it and you have to live it day by day, you’re on campus with the scooter and stuff, it’s just being where your feet are was the hardest part.”

He also grew tired of the questions. Although he realized most came out of genuine concern and curiosity, no athlete wants to relive his or her injury. Calvin, more than most of his peers, isn’t one for pity.

“Definitely kind of a lot of unwanted conversations as well,” he said. “You definitely get tired of hearing that, getting asked the same questions. Also just the sympathetic people kind of feeling sorry for you.”

Like he did the first time, Calvin immersed himself in rehabilitation and recovery – a decent distraction – but some days were admittedly harder others. He describes being “teary-eyed” on Saturdays while watching the Cougars play without him. Because Calvin tends to suppress his emotions, it was difficult for those in his inner circle to gauge how much he was hurting.

“So, as a father, I have to put it in perspective for him because he’s just like, ‘I pray all the time, I work hard, I do the right thing. Why is this happening?’ ” Zaire said. “I just tell him, ‘It’s not happening to you, it’s just something that could happen. It’s not happening directly to you, it’s just something that happened. And unfortunately this is your time for it to happen. Always look at, it can always be worse.’ ”

Calvin parted with his scooter for good near the end of November and began walking on his own almost a month later. A return to the field in 2020 seemed imminent — until it didn’t. The COVID-19 pandemic struck days before the Cougars were scheduled to begin spring camp, delaying what would’ve been Calvin’s first real action since the Alamo Bowl, and forcing him to miss a third training camp period for something that was out of his control.

Granted, what’s one more setback for someone who’d already overcome the previous two?

“After being hurt for so long, you learn patience, so I wasn’t as eager and as anxious as I usually would be,” he said. “I feel like that’s a good thing for me, because sometimes I put a lot of pressure on myself.”

Returning home to Southern California, Calvin worked out daily with his father at Xtreme Athletics, staying busy with plyometric training, explosion work and isometric exercises.

“He was in what we call the dojo,” Zaire laughed.

Washington State wide receiver Jamire Calvin (right) takes a break from a workout with his father Zaire, who owns Xtreme Athletics in Southern California.   (Zaire Calvin/Courtesy)
Washington State wide receiver Jamire Calvin (right) takes a break from a workout with his father Zaire, who owns Xtreme Athletics in Southern California.  (Zaire Calvin/Courtesy)

Weary of Calvin’s fragile right foot, Zaire vowed to keep his son on lower-impact grass playing surfaces, rather than concrete. Dad admits he felt his heart drop into his stomach every time Jamire rose up to grab a 50/50 ball in traffic.

“I’m like, ‘Please don’t do that,’ ” Zaire said. “It’s just what he’s going to do. It’s like, ‘Don’t throw me the ball then. You can’t put me in the situation where I have to go up on this 6-2 DB and not expect me to climb the ladder and go get this ball.’ ”

Six hundred and 50 days.

That’s how much time had elapsed from Calvin’s last experience in a true football setting, at the Alamo Bowl, to when the Cougars opened fall camp nearly a month ago – something that also was never a certainty, and could’ve pushed back the receiver’s return another six to 12 months.

“(His return) means a lot,” fellow receiver and former Cathedral High teammate Renard Bell said. “It’s another threat on the field. … So, you’ve got four threats on the field. It’s hard to cover all four, then you’ve got another threat in the backfield. So having him really opens up the field for all of us. It’s like back in high school.”

First-year Cougars coach Nick Rolovich offered Calvin a scholarship at Hawaii, but given the player’s robust recruiting profile, it’s presumed their first interaction didn’t come until the coach was hired to replace Leach earlier this year.

“His buy-in’s been great from the start,” Rolovich said. “He’s a talented player. I think he’s got a real driven mindset. He’s not terribly outspoken, but when he walks out on the practice field, I think he comes out with a mission and comes out with a determination. It probably stems from missing last year. … It’s probably a very exciting opportunity for him.”

On Saturday, Calvin will run through a tunnel and onto a football field – something he’s already done 26 times as a WSU player. This experience should be fraught with much more emotion for reasons that don’t need to be stated.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Calvin said. “It’s been an emotional roller coaster. It’s been a lot of different emotions, a lot of different things that have happened and we’re still in a very awkward situation for everybody.

“But just definitely I’ve been thinking about that moment for a while and it’s almost here, so I’m appreciative to be back out here and be able to have another opportunity to do these things with my teammates.”

Calvin may have to fall back on blind faith and patience again in his football career.

Ideally, without any more metal screws.