FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Keon Hatcher strolled out of the medical office on a pair of healthy, boot-free feet. He smiled, struggling to play it cool in the emotional moments after his doctor said the magic word.
Hatcher unlocked his Dodge Charger and plopped into the driver’s seat. Then, considering the long road he traveled to arrive at that moment — with one more college football season to achieve his potential and disprove the nearly 120 programs that didn’t want him — Hatcher sat in his car and wept.
About two weeks later, a much more subdued Hatcher sat in Arkansas’ Fred W. Smith Football Center and made his intentions for 2016 — his second senior season — clear during an interview with SEC Country.
“I’m rested, fresh, healthy,” Hatcher said. “I’m ready to do what I was supposed to do last year.
“It’s just a blessing to be able to play again.”
Nearly 11 months removed from a broken left foot that prematurely ended Hatcher’s 2015 season, the wide receiver begins fall practices with his Arkansas teammates Thursday. And, as one of the last remaining Bobby Petrino recruits, Hatcher is determined to finish in Fayetteville on a high note.
‘They were gonna take care of him’
Hatcher grew up in the Tulsa, Okla., area, playing middle and high school football at nearby Owasso High School. A tall, fast outside receiver, Hatcher dreamed — like many youngsters in the state — of one day being a Sooner.
He visited Oklahoma for its summer camp just before his senior year and felt like he performed well. And Hatcher’s self-described “big brother,” cornerback Aaron Colvin, had signed with OU out of Owasso a year earlier.
Colvin became an All-Big 12 performer and is preparing for his third season with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“I showed out up there,” Hatcher recalled of his OU camp experience. “Coach Bob Stoops even came out there to look at me, but I never got the offer.”
But that would hardly be the last school to pass on Hatcher. He only had an Arkansas offer until late in his senior season, when Oklahoma State came calling.
Hatcher committed to the Razorbacks in August 2011, but after his fantastic senior campaign — he caught 20 touchdown passes to go with his 1,610 receiving yards — he started to give the Cowboys serious consideration.
Interestingly, both teams that offered Hatcher a scholarship finished the 2011 season with top 5 rankings. No. 3 Oklahoma State narrowly missed a BCS national championship game appearance, went 12-1 and won the Fiesta Bowl. Fifth-ranked Arkansas finished 11-2, with the two losses coming to Alabama and LSU, the title-game participants.
Both teams also offered him the opportunity to play in a spread, pass-heavy system that he believed would allow him to thrive.
Hatcher and his mother visited Oklahoma State in mid-January, then Arkansas a week later. The trip to Fayetteville reaffirmed Hatcher’s commitment to the Hogs, and he signed a few weeks later.
“OSU was nice,” said Delilah Lucas, Hatcher’s mom. “But when we came to Arkansas, it was great. It was on a totally different scale.
“The people around here made you feel so comfortable and at home. They said they were gonna take care of him.”
Everything had come together for Hatcher, even after he didn’t get the recruiting attention he felt like he deserved.
He would suit up for a rising power in college football’s premier conference and have the opportunity to grow in an offense that seemed perfectly suited for his skill set.
And then, two months later, everything changed.
‘I questioned a lot’
Bobby Petrino’s firing in April 2012 sent shockwaves through college football.
The stunning events — from Petrino’s infamous motorcycle crash through the subsequent investigation that revealed the depths of his deception and then his ultimate termination — quickly changed Arkansas from a championship-level program to one in complete disarray.
Two weeks after athletic director Jeff Long fired Petrino, he hired John L. Smith to serve as interim coach for the 2012 season, meaning that when Hatcher reported to campus for summer workouts, his head coach had been there less than two months.
The Hogs began that season ranked in the top 10 but ended with a 4-8 record. Hatcher appeared in 10 games as a true freshman, catching his first career touchdown in the Hogs’ late-season loss at South Carolina.
“I questioned a lot,” Hatcher said of that rough first season. “I was a young kid trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. But I just had to stick it out.
“When tough times come, you’ve gotta keep going. I just wanted to help build this program up again.”
But in December 2012, when Long hired Wisconsin’s Bret Bielema as the new head coach, Hatcher admits now that he — briefly — questioned his future in Fayetteville.
After all, Bielema’s pro-style, run-heavy offense looks nothing like the system Petrino ran.
“When I first found out Coach B was gonna be the coach, I was hurt,” Hatcher said. “Because I knew how much he ran the ball. I knew how much Coach Bobby P and them used to throw the ball. Those were two different schemes.”
After conversations with those closest to him, though, Hatcher decided to stick it out. And despite the Hogs going 2-14 in SEC play over his freshman and sophomore years, he doesn’t regret anything.
Throughout Hatcher’s junior season, the Hogs made strides, finishing 7-6 and beating Texas in a bowl game. Hatcher recorded 558 receiving yards and 6 touchdowns that year.
He believed big things were in store for 2015 and backed that up with a 6-catch, 106-yard, 2-touchdown performance in the season opener against UTEP.
“I really wanted to take over the SEC last year,” he said.
‘The game’s not over’
Arkansas’ second game of the season certainly wasn’t going as planned. Playing in Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium, the Hogs trailed mid-major Toledo 16-10 late in the fourth quarter but marched down the field and inside the Rockets’ 10.
On a third-and-goal at the Toledo 7, Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen scrambled out of the pocket to his right and heaved a pass through the opposite corner of the end zone, intended for Jared Cornelius.
But far away from the incomplete pass, Hatcher took an awkward step and felt a pop in his left foot. He knew right away that it was broken.
A short time later, he jogged to the sideline and told running back Jonathan Williams — who broke his foot during the preseason — what had happened. He also told head athletic trainer Matt Summers.
But when Summers told him to take off his shoe so he could examine the foot, Hatcher refused.
“The game’s not over,” Hatcher told Summers. “I know if you take this cleat off, it’s gonna be over with.”
Hatcher returned to the field for Arkansas’ final drive, ran a dig route and caught Allen’s first-down pass, gaining 18 yards to midfield. But the Hogs were unable to score, leading to a massively disappointing defeat for a team that began the season ranked No. 18.
After the game, doctors confirmed what Hatcher already knew — he’d broken the fifth metatarsal bone in his left foot. It would require surgery, and a return to action that season was perilous.
‘We weren’t in a partying mood’
Delilah Lucas — Hatcher’s mother — did not attend the Toledo game. It’s rare when she misses any Arkansas game, but she had a good excuse.
Lucas was back in Fayetteville, setting up a surprise 21st birthday party for her son. Dozens of family members had come to celebrate. She rented out Grub’s, a popular bar and grill in town, and had decorated it with red and white balloons and streamers.
Hatcher’s coaches and teammates knew about the surprise party, which was all set for that evening.
Everything — decorations, food, drinks and guests — was in place when Lucas’ phone rang shortly after the game ended. On the other end of the phone was her son, who relayed the bad news.
She met him when the team bus arrived in Fayetteville, but they never made it to Grub’s.
“We had to just let it go,” Lucas said, crying as she recalled that evening.
“We weren’t in a partying mood.”
After the initial shock and disappointment of the injury, Hatcher talked with Arkansas coaches and compliance officials and was confident he would qualify for a redshirt season.
He didn’t travel to road games, instead watching them on television with Williams — his roommate — and lamenting that he couldn’t be on the field.
He’d hoped to return late in the season, but his foot didn’t heal quickly enough.
Hatcher still thinks about some of the close losses last season and wonders if his presence could have made a difference.
‘Straight like that’
Hatcher rejoiced, though, at the news that he would be allowed to play one more season for the Razorbacks. Cleared to participate in spring practices, Hatcher went through everything pain-free, catching three passes for 48 yards in the spring game.
After the spring session, Hatcher went to see his doctor for a follow-up appointment, and the doctor recommended another, second surgery on his left foot, just to reinforce it.
“I never reinjured my foot,” Hatcher said. “In that spot of your foot, it takes time for that bone to heal. Sometimes it doesn’t fully close up.”
After the doctor’s appointment earlier this month that left him crying tears of joy, Hatcher is eager to make the most of his final shot.
“Here’s a guy that, last year at this time, was expecting to do some great things,” Arkansas receivers coach Michael Smith said. “He had his season cut short, but throughout the process, he went out and continued to work.
“He’s killed it in the training room and continued to kill it in the weight room. He just continually impresses me with his resilience.”
The way Hatcher sees it, his plans for a great senior season weren’t destroyed by that broken foot; those plans were just delayed.
“This year is gonna be his year,” Lucas said, “because momma said so.”
Sitting about 5 feet away while Lucas wrapped up her interview with SEC Country, Hatcher smiled at his mom and said, “Straight like that.”
She looked back at her son and echoed him.
“Straight like that.”