JACKSONVILLE, Fla. | Former Alabama receiver Tyrone Prothro lined up alongside NFL veterans Torry Holt and Dennis Northcutt last weekend and couldn't avoid the thought:
"That's supposed to be me."
Prothro, whose promising career ended when he broke both bones in his lower left leg trying to catch a fourth-quarter pass against Florida in October 2005, ran routes, caught passes and even played a little defense during Jacksonville's three-day minicamp.
It wasn't the NFL debut Prothro dreamed he would have, but given all he's been through since the injury, he wasn't about to complain.
"Anytime you haven't been on the field in a while and you get a chance to get back out and do what you love to do, or at least participate in what you love to do, it makes you feel good," said Prothro, who was invited to minicamp to learn the coaching ropes. "It's exciting and I enjoyed it a lot."
Prothro's weekend was a busy one, too.
He attended five practices and even more meetings in a little more than a 48-hour span, taking mental notes, asking questions and trying to absorb all could about coaching.
"Even before I got hurt, I've always had it in my mind that once the NFL was over, if I made it to the NFL, I wanted to get into coaching" Prothro said. "It's always been a dream of mine that I wanted to coach. I love this game and love teaching, so it's a perfect fit."
It's also the only way for him to get back into football.
Prothro was one of the best receivers in the Southeastern Conference in 2005, a speedy, shifty, big-play threat who also ran the ball, returned kicks and even lined up at quarterback. He was on pace for a career year and was having the game of his life against the Gators.
He burned Florida's secondary for an 87-yard touchdown catch on Alabama's first play, then added a 15-yard TD reception in the third quarter. He had five catches for 134 yards and was looking for more in the fourth quarter when he landed awkwardly in the end zone.
Slow-motion replays showed a break maybe even more gruesome than when NFL star Lawrence Taylor landed on quarterback Joe Theisman's leg.
Prothro was rushed to a Tuscaloosa hospital and underwent the first of what would be many operations. A rod was inserted into his tibia to stabilize the compound fracture. He spent 26 days in the hospital, battling pain, infection and inflammation.
"It's been an unfortunate path, but he has never complained," former Alabama coach and current Jaguars quarterbacks coach Mike Shula said. "He has never said one word, never said, 'Why me?' He's always looking forward."
Prothro's recovery remains a work in progress.
He's had more operations than he cares to count and still walks and runs with a slight limp. His left leg was clearly swollen during drills in Jacksonville and he wore a protective sheath that covered his scars. He said he's not sure if he'll have more surgery.
"Right now, I'm done," he said. "I may think about having another one. Then again, I may just live my life and move forward. I have a little pain, but it's nothing serious."
His desire to coach is serious, though.
Prothro graduated from Alabama last August with a degree in Human Environmental Science. Since the graduate assistant jobs for Alabama's football program were filled, he started looking elsewhere. He called Shula, his former coach and one of his closest friends.
"We've made some calls to some other coaches in regards to him being a G.A.," Shula said. "It's tough. There's a long list of people wanting to do that. But I think he's got a lot to offer as a potential coach. He knows he's got to go in with an unbelievable amount of energy and work a lot of long hours and work your way up."
Shula asked Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio if Prothro could spend minicamp with the team, giving him some coaching experience to put on his resume. Del Rio obliged, and Prothro went right to work.
With NFL receivers all around him, Prothro couldn't help but wonder where he might be had he not broken his leg. He likes to think he'd be in the league, but knows he'd still be planning a coaching career.
"I'm more concerned with the now, moving on and doing what my desire is," he said. "I'm just trying to go somewhere I can get my foot in the door and get started with this coaching thing."