TSU's Rico Council uses near-death experience to transform himself

Sunday, August 21, 2011 at 10:05pm
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Rico Council (Courtesy TSU Athletics) 

On the football field, Rico Council knows positioning. The Tennessee State senior understands alignment and the importance of being in the right spot to bring down a ball carrier.

Of course, his 6-foot, 256-pound frame helps him make those stops. Over the last three seasons, the middle linebacker has tallied 209 tackles, which ranks second in school history. Positioning himself to make the play is half the battle. 

Unfortunately, two years ago, Council was in the wrong place at the wrong time off the field.

“It could have ended my whole football career,” he said. Actually, it could have been worse than that.

During Easter weekend in 2009, Council was home in Chattanooga. After going to a party, he hopped into a car with “some old friends.” He described them as good friends, saying a majority had gone to Howard High School with him and also were attending college. Others, though, “don’t do too much after high school,” he said.

As they were driving on the highway, a car pulled up alongside them, and shots were fired from inside the other vehicle. One of the bullets found Council, ripping through the bottom of his ear.

Luckily for Council, he was near a hospital. His jaw was broken. In fact, the bullet was lodged in his jawbone. The doctors couldn’t extract the bullet until the swelling decreased. 

Any number of thoughts raced through his mind for the nearly two weeks he sat in a hospital bed. 

“I think [the shooting] was kind of random, but you never know,” Council said. “When you haven’t been home … I was up here [at Tennessee State] for a long time. So I don’t know what was going on at home. It could have been an altercation that could have led to it or anything. I never knew. It ended up happening to me, and I was at the wrong place at the wrong time.

It didn’t take long for the word to spread – and to hit home. 

“It got him into a situation that could have really easily cost him his life,” TSU coach Rod Reed said.

“It scared us,” said offensive lineman Justin Ridgeway, who came in with Council as a freshman in 2007. “Not only did it scare him, it scared his family. It scared the team. I feel like we as a team, we look at that as we learn from that. We are here to play football. I feel like we grew as a team from that. We became closer.” 

For Council, the support was overwhelming. While many of his hometown friends didn’t stop by, Tiger coaches, including Reed and then-head coach James Webster, and TSU teammates — from within the state and beyond — arrived at the hospital.

“They came all the way to my hometown to make sure I was all right,” he said. “That made me think, if they will do this for me, I can do anything for them and work my way back into football shape and be back on the field with them.”

After the bullet was finally removed, Council’s jaw was wired shut for seven weeks. He stuck to a soup and liquid diet, dropping pounds along the way. Still, he never missed a beat. More determined the next season, Council finished second on the team in tackles and tackles for loss as he started all 11 games.

In 2010, he picked up where he left off, with a personal-best 79 tackles. He also led the team with four sacks. And he grabbed the attention of Ohio Valley Conference coaches, too. Heading into his final season, last month he was named the league’s preseason co-defensive player of the year.

“I feel like Rico stepped up,” Ridgeway said. “He is the leader of the defense. He is going to push through regardless of what it is. When I found out what happened, I had a feeling he was going to be all right. Just knowing Rico, he’s the type of a guy who is a fighter.”

Reed saw potential in Council when he personally recruited him nearly five years ago. So did many other area teams: Council received scholarship offers from Tennessee-Martin, Tennessee Tech and Alabama A&M. But many backed off when it became evident that Council’s grades were sub-par.

“Coach Reed was the only one to stick by me,” he said. “I struggled that first year.”

The academic woes kept him from playing as a freshman in 2007. The NCAA Clearinghouse did not clear him. But Reed and the TSU coaches didn’t give up.

“After his second year, he started to realize how important grades were going to be,” Reed said. “At that point, we really didn’t have to enforce as much as we used to. It used to be you had to get his butt up and walk him to class to make sure he got there. They start to mature and learn some things.”

A former TSU linebacker (he is the school’s all-time leader in tackles), Reed admits to having a soft spot for Council. He calls the 22-year-old one of his favorites. The feeling is mutual — Council describes his head coach as “one of the closest things I’ve got” to a father.

There is no question it will be a special day for both men if Council walks across the stage in December to receive his diploma. He is 14 credit-hours from graduating with a degree in psychology.

“Even more so than him going to play in the NFL, getting his college degree would be really important to me,” Reed said.

If the NFL doesn’t pan out, Council wants to return to Chattanooga and work for a nonprofit organization as a mentor for youth programs. Eventually, he wants to coach. And if he does, he will teach future linebackers how to be in good position — on and off the field.

“Once you have life-changing experiences, you kind of grow from that,” Reed said. “I think he has grown from that.”