Ali Groves is known for his athleticism, aggressiveness and his smarts on and off the football field.
A hard hit delivered to an opposing player during the third game of his junior season seemed fairly routine. Later in the game, however, Groves knew something was wrong when his neck became stiff.
A class of 2013 defensive back signee from Stephenson High School in Stone Mountain, Ga., Groves would learn that he had a neck fracture of the C1 vertebra.
"I never expected it to happen," said Groves, now a freshman at South Carolina. "I was having a pretty good season. I actually went back in and played. It was basically a freak accident."
Groves had 23 tackles, one interception and two forced fumbles in his injury-shortened junior season.
Stephenson High School head football coach Ron Gartrell credited Groves' family for getting doctors to take a closer look at the injury.
"Most people probably would have let it go as a sprained neck and played the rest of the season," Gartrell said. "We're glad he did what he did. Now he can go on and play without any problems."
Neck fractures can cause paralysis or even be fatal. Groves wore a neck brace for nearly four months and was able to bounce back and return to football.
A fully-recovered Groves was a two-way player during his senior year Stephenson High and was one of five defensive backs to sign with the Gamecocks in February. Groves enrolled at USC in June.
"We felt like he had a full recovery," Gartrell said. "He took a big shot in one of our early games, so he got that over with early."
South Carolina offered the three-star prospect after his junior season. Groves' offer sheet would grow to include Vanderbilt, Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, N.C. State and more.
South Carolina's renowned international business school was a bonus for the Gamecocks, said Groves, who had a 3.8 GPA and wants to major in international business. The team's reputation for sending defensive backs to the NFL also was a factor in his decision.
"I broke it down to my last two schools, Vanderbilt and South Carolina," he said. "After I went on my visit to South Carolina it seemed like a school that would fit me better. They have a great academic program and their football program is very good."
South Carolina coaches told him to come in this summer ready to work and to get acclimated to college and the Gamecocks' system. Groves reunited with Stephenson teammates Kyle Fleetwood, Kadetrix Marcus and Mike Davis.
"He's been a great player, great work ethic," Gartrell said, "the type of guy you want in your program."