There were times last season when Titans middle linebacker Colin McCarthy looked like an ice salesman as he walked through the locker room, one bag strapped to his upper body, another one or two clinging to his legs.
His ferocious playing style combined with a relatively small frame — 6-foot-1, 238 pounds — meant he spent a good chunk of his first NFL season battling through nagging injuries: a hamstring strain, dislocated fingers and a sore knee, to name a few.
Will McCarthy be able to withstand the rigors of a full season as a starter in 2012, after making a huge impact in just seven starts as a rookie last year?
In seeking an answer to that question, it’s worth noting what McCarthy showed he could overcome even before reaching the NFL — three shoulder surgeries and a car accident in which the vehicle McCarthy was traveling in flipped six times on the highway before smashing into a tree.
How much more difficult could a full-season starting job as an NFL middle linebacker be compared to that?
“Pain is just part of the game, and if you’re thinking about getting hurt or injured, then you’re probably going to get hurt,” McCarthy said. “That’s got to be the last thing in your mind when you’re on the football field.
“There’s a way you’re supposed to play the game as a middle linebacker. You’re supposed to be fast and physical, and you have to be able to plug the hole. That’s the way you play the game and injuries shouldn’t affect that.”
Strong rookie season in 2011
That’s the kind of attitude McCarthy displayed as a rookie when, despite starting only seven games, he totaled 76 tackles, a team-best eight tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and an interception.
He’s got fans and teammates — not to mention coaches — eager to see more.
“Colin processes stuff fast and he’d love to go hit somebody first and then think second,” defensive coordinator Jerry Gray said. “We’re trying to get him to do things a little more subtle at times. Other than just hitting someone, think first and then go hit someone.
“But he loves to be physical, so the thing we have to do is make sure we give him the chance to play 16, 17, 18 games and not get worn out with the big (offensive) linemen on him. If we’ve got to cover him up, we’ve got to be smart enough to cover him up.”
The 24-year-old McCarthy has had to deal with health concerns since before he entered the University of Miami, as a shoulder injury suffered late in high school was severe enough that a doctor questioned whether he’d be able to continue playing his sport of choice.
“I’m thinking, ‘I am about to play college football and I want to play football in the pros,’ ” McCarthy said. “So to hear that as a senior in high school, you really think about things.”
Another doctor’s second opinion was more favorable. That led McCarthy to the first of his three shoulder surgeries and allowed him to return to the football field.
But it was a non-football incident in 2007 that really put a scare into McCarthy.
He and two teammates were headed back to Miami, driving down I-75 from Tampa late at night, when Jermaine McKenzie fell asleep at the wheel, resulting in the car flipping six times and smashing into a tree.
McCarthy’s two teammates suffered season-ending injuries, but somehow he escaped with just a deep cut on his knee.
“The key thing I take from that is just how lucky I am to get out of there injury-free,” McCarthy said. “The crazy thing is that a lot of the paramedics came up after the accident and said, ‘Rarely do people survive, let alone all three of us.’ I was just fortunate to take every day as a blessing and be able to continue to play football.”
'He's a warrior'
Maybe the ability to bounce back from a life-threatening episode such as that leaves one feeling mighty resilient, which is a trait McCarthy displayed during his rookie season.
The hamstring injury forced him to miss three games, the dislocated fingers — one of which occurred when he dove on a fumble in Buffalo — were painful, and the knee soreness caused him to miss practices at times during the latter half of the season.
But McCarthy always found a way to be effective as a starter, especially in the Buffalo game, when he produced 11 tackles, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble en route to earning AFC defensive player of the week honors.
“There were a lot of times he couldn’t practice during the week, but you knew you could still depend on him in the game,” linebacker Akeem Ayers said. “He’s a warrior. He gives up his body on every tackle and every fullback he takes.
“He leaves it all on the field on Sundays, and that’s the kind of player I love playing next to. He’s not worried about the next play. He’s just worried about that play, getting the job done right then and there.”
As he readies to assume a full-time starting role, McCarthy certainly doesn’t sound as if he’s preparing to change his style.
“Football is a physical sport and with the size of the guys here, you’re going to get bumps and bruises,” McCarthy said. “But I make sure during the week I prepare so that when I go out on Sundays, I play the same way. I throw my body out there and I’m willing to give it up for teammates.
“I can deal with the pain Mondays through Saturday. But when Sundays come, I have to make sure I’m ready to go out there and play football the way it should be played.”