July 20, 2015
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- When University of Virginia wide receiver Doni Dowling tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in mid February, his fate appeared set.
It seemed almost inevitable that, after having reconstructive surgery, Dowling would sit out spring practice, rehabilitate his knee through the summer, redshirt in the fall, and then return to action in 2016.
Redshirting remains an option for the 6-1, 215-pound Dowling, and he knows that might be a wise career move. Still, his rehab is proceeding exceptionally well, and he hasn’t ruled out playing this fall.
His return would bolster the Cavaliers’ receiving corps. As a true freshman last season, Dowling appeared in all 12 games, with one start, and caught 17 passes for 141 yards.
“My pride wants me to play,” Dowling said this week. “Even with my injury, I feel like if I can go, I can go.”
A graduate of Varina High School, Dowling hurt his knee while jumping into a pile of snow on Grounds near his dorm last winter. He thought he’d suffered nothing worse than a minor injury – “I actually got up and ran,” Dowling recalled -- but swelling in the knee prompted him to visit a doctor, who diagnosed a torn ACL.
“The next couple days I was a little sad,” Dowling said, “but I realized everything happens for a reason.”
Dowling underwent surgery Feb. 24. Little more than four months later, he was cleared to begin running routes again. As the start of training camp approaches, he’s lifting weights and taking part in non-contact drills with his teammates.
“He obviously is progressing really well,” said Kelli Pugh, Virginia’s head athletic trainer for football. “He’s doing his agility progression at this point, and non-contact cutting is part of his progression.
“He hasn’t had any setbacks as far as tendinitis issues or lots of swelling or things like that. Some of it’s good natural healing ability, but a lot of it is to his credit -- his hard work and his dedication to rehab and having a really positive attitude during all of it.”
Head coach Mike London said: “The kid’s got a terrific mindset. He’s one of the toughest guys we’ve got on the team.”
Dowling, who returned to Charlottesville in May, has taken a class in each session of summer school. His days start early – Dowling wakes around 6 a.m. – and include classes, strength-and-conditioning sessions with teammates, and treatment with Pugh. In the late afternoon, he runs routes and catches passes.
Initially, Dowling said, he was tentative after being cleared to run and cut at full speed, “but then I picked it up. I did all the routes full go, and none of them really bothered me to the point where I needed to stop. It was more of a mind thing, that I didn’t want to plant too hard, at least not this early.”
For every player returning from a torn ACL, rehab proceeds differently.
“I’ve seen guys heal fast,” London said. “I’ve seen guys take longer than normal.”
Pugh said players at the skill positions, including wideouts, defensive backs and running backs, often regain strength in their knees faster than linemen.
In general, though, “guys progress at different rates, and strength development returns at different rates,” she said. “And so that’s really the determining factor for when people do get cleared.”
UVa’s medical staff uses strength tests to compare a player’s injured leg to his other leg, Pugh said. “We want to see that they’re back at the 85-percent strength mark compared to their uninjured side before we consider clearing them.”
The six-month mark after surgery is the earliest such testing is done, Pugh said. For Dowling, that would be Aug. 24, less than two weeks before Virginia’s Sept. 5 season-opener at UCLA.
When Dowling will be cleared for contact and full participation in practice “all depends on his strength gains and what that objective testing looks like,” Pugh said.
London said he would not want Dowling to use a season of eligibility to play in only a few games. But if Dowling is cleared early enough and wants to play this season, London will consider that option.
“I wouldn’t say it’s out of the realm of possibility,” London said.
Harris and Dowling have been friends, and teammates, since they were in elementary school.
“We started off playing football, basketball, baseball,” Dowling recalled.
Dowling embraced a variety of athletic challenges growing up. He swam competitively for a couple of years as a boy, and his comfort in the pool has helped him during his rehab at UVa.
At North Grounds Recreation Center this spring, “I’d do laps for 30 or 40 minutes,” Dowling said. “I used to be on the swim team when I was younger, so I know the strokes enough to actually do something. I do breaststroke, freestyle.”
“Butterfly’s too tiring,” Dowling said, laughing, “and my technique’s not good enough.”
At Varina, Dowling ran track and played football, basketball and soccer. His best sport, not surprisingly, was football. Dowling played wide receiver and defensive back, returned kicks, and punted. He was named All-Capital District at multiple positions, but most Football Bowl Subdivision programs were not impressed.
Virginia was the only FBS school to offer a scholarship to Dowling, and he arrived on Grounds last summer with few of the accolades of his more heralded classmates. The lack of recruiting buzz motivated him, Dowling said.
“Definitely,” he said. “I worked so hard. I made plays in high school. I really thought I was [an FBS] player. And so I’m kind of glad about not having a lot of offers. It focused me onto this school, and I felt like that was intentional. God had a plan for me.”
From his first day at UVa, Dowling impressed his new teammates and coaches, and after training camp opened last August he quickly moved into the rotation at receiver.
“I don’t like standing in the shadow for long,” said Dowling, one of four true freshmen to play for the Wahoos in 2014. “I just don’t like being overlooked. It just gave me a chip on my shoulder.”
UVa opened the season against UCLA at Scott Stadium. Dowling finished the game with five receptions, a school record for a freshman in his college debut. In September, he had four catches at BYU. Those highlights notwithstanding, Dowling wasn’t satisfied.
“I feel my season was decent,” he said, “but it wasn’t that great for me.”
He expects to do more when he returns to the field. It’s too early to say whether that will be this year or next, but the prospect of playing this fall clearly appeals to Dowling.
“I feel like if the team needs me, I need to be there for my team,” Dowling said. “I can’t be selfish.”
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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.
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