Believing someone had stepped on the back of his shoe, T.J. Fatinikun turned around but saw no one near him. His attention turned to a clump of medical tape hugging his ankle, which to his dismay was intact.
Laid crippled on the ground moments later, the University of Toledo standout defensive lineman had exhausted all innocuous possibilities for the sharp pain he felt in the back of his foot.
Fatinikun on Tuesday spoke publicly for the first time since sustaining a torn Achilles tendon on Saturday at Western Michigan, describing his being stricken by season-ending injuries in consecutive seasons as "devastating." The Perrysburg graduate, who is scheduled to undergo surgery on Tuesday, vowed to return with conviction next year, be it as a fifth-year senior with the Rockets or in a professional setting.
"It's not the end of things for me, I don't believe," Fatinikun, a two-time All Mid-American Conference performer, said. "I have a strong belief I will be back, that my surgery will go good."
Toledo will file an appeal seeking a fifth year for Fatinikun in 2013, although coach Matt Campbell cedes it's "a crapshoot" whether the Mid-American Conference will grant the request. By competing in at least 30 percent of his team's games in each of the past two seasons, Fatinikun appears ineligible for such a waiver.
"The general guideline is 30 percent, but if the school wants to pursue it, they can file the waver request with the conference," NCAA spokesperson Christopher Radford said. "As part of that process it would be expected they would present mitigating evidence."
Fatinikun, who plans to graduate in May with a communications degree, participated in five games this season and six in 2011 before he dislocated an elbow that required surgery to fix. If this marks the end to his career, he closes with 104 tackles and 11 sacks.
His physician told Fatinikun he can expect to be 75 to 80 percent healthy for Toledo's pro day in mid March, numbers Fatinikun believes will be greater by then "because I'm a fast healer."
Fatinikun said he is thankful for an outpouring of support, which includes text messages "almost every two hours" from teammate Jermaine Robinson, himself a victim of an Achilles tear two years ago.
Unlike the elbow injury he suffered last year against Eastern Michigan, Fatinikun was not engaged in a football act when he crumbled early in the first quarter. In positioning himself to read the play call from the sideline, he took "just a regular step." The outcome was anything but routine.
"I do understand everything happens for a reason, and God does have a plan," Fatinikun said.