Jordan May's back pain lasted nearly two years – the second time around – and pushed him to the brink of walking away from football.
He dreaded making the decision on whether to give up the game. May, a redshirt junior at the University of Saint Francis, grew up in the locker room and on the field. His father, Scott, is the head coach at Hamilton Southeastern High School. Jordan became a defensive end from nearly the time he could crawl.
Football wasn't just a sport he played. It was a lifestyle. Thinking it might be over added another layer to the pain, but there was no avoiding the thought.
“You can feel fine walking around, going to class, but you get on the field and you can't move like you need to move,” May said. “That was the frustrating thing.”
Midway through the 2015 season, May started having disc pain in his back. He'd dealt with pain before, suffering a stress fracture in high school. This was a different type, the nagging disc pain that men deal with when they're 60 after a lifetime of manual labor, not at 20.
He worked with Parkview Sports Medicine physical therapists. He made progress, had setbacks and ended up missing the entire 2016 season, including the national championship game.
May contemplated the previously unthinkable: Giving up football.
“I had been dealing with it for so long, it was kind of discouraging, 'Will I ever be able to be rid of this?' ” May said. “Parkview's physical therapist helped a lot. I pursued it and kept going.”
Finally, he saw a light at the end of the tunnel.
“Last winter break, after the championship, I thought, 'I've got to get back out there. I'm not letting this opportunity slip,' ” May said. “I put a lot of work in over the winter break and I saw progress. I thought maybe there's a chance.”
Spring ball arrived. He was in pads, running, hitting, feeling as good as he's felt in nearly two years.
May set a goal of earning regular playing time again. He kept Plan B – staying with the team as a student coach – in the back of his mind.
He recalls making a deal with himself.
“If I'm in crippling pain, ridiculously bad, I'll throw in the towel and do what I can for the team,” May said. “But as long as I keep progressing, I'll keep riding it out and see what happens.”
May returned to health, returned to regular practice, and played in his first game since 2015 when the Cougars opened with a road win at Jamestown, N.D., last Saturday. No. 1 Saint Francis opens at home against Saint Francis of Illinois at noon Saturday in Bishop D'Arcy Stadium.
May's parents, Scott and Kathy, will be in the stands, reveling in their son's return to the field.
“I'm proud of him that he stayed with it and kept fighting,” Scott May said. “I was worried last year that maybe he'd say, 'That's enough.' There's new life for him and new fire. This summer he had a good summer.”
Saint Francis coach Kevin Donley watched May's struggle over the last two years, and said he could see him fighting through the pain.
“Being from a football family, he understands the importance of overcoming adverse circumstances,” Donley said. “He got himself to the point where he was ready to play. I thought he was done.”
May thought about transitioning to coaching during his rehab because so much of his work was limited to the mental side of the game. He could study film, like any other defensive lineman. He just couldn't play. Watching was instructional, if frustrating.
“Having physical injuries, you have to make up for it with mental sharpness and understanding the game,” May said. “You have to understand plays and leverages and that type of stuff. You don't have to be a freak athlete, like some guys are.”
To come back and play after such a long time injured, May had to work overtime. To call it a slow process is to shortchange the word slow.
“What he's done, in my opinion, is nothing short of a miracle,” Saint Francis co-defensive coordinator Eric Wagoner said. “He went from not being able to do anything for 18 months to getting himself back in football shape and ready to go. Honestly, I always thought it was gong to be an injury he wasn't going to be able to come back from.”
His first game back at Jamestown last Saturday was a milestone, and a re-starting point. The talent that led Saint Francis to recruit him in the first place remained, but he's not yet at his game-time finest.
“With Jordan, it's all about knocking the rust off,” Wagoner said. “He had some really good plays against Jamestown. He had a couple that he missed, and we talked about how those are plays he's going to make in four or five weeks.”
With that first game back to the lineup under his belt, May can get back to the business of rushing the quarterback and dishing out some hits.
May is studying business administration with a minor in risk-management and insurance. He plans to graduate next May and could return for a fifth year of eligibility as a graduate student.
“He's a smart football player,” Donley said. “When we recruited him out of high school, I thought he'd be a dominant player by his sophomore season. I think he will be now.”
May rooms with quarterback Nick Ferrer, nose tackle Eric Hemmelgarn and student volunteer Grant Sherman.
“It's been really good and very exciting to see him out there,” Hemmelgarn said. “It's really neat for your roommate to play right beside you.”
As May increases his playing time, he could also carry added weight in the locker room.
“He's a voice younger guys should listen to,” Wagoner said. “Talk about ups and downs, he's been through them all. You want a voice of reason, he's one for you.”
No. 1 Saint Francis vs. Saint Francis (Ill.)
Kickoff: noon Saturday at Bishop D'Arcy Stadium
Radio: Redeemer Radio, 106.3-FM
Records: Saint Francis 1-0, Saint Francis (Ill.) 0-1
Follow Reggie Hayes on Twitter at reggiehayes1