BLACKSBURG — It’s the time after games, after the fans have cleared from Lane Stadium and his friends and family have hit the road for home, that are the hardest on Antone Exum.
Hours after they’re all done celebrating another Virginia Tech football victory he could only watch from the sideline, Exum returns to campus, walks out onto the Hokies’ practice field and puts himself through a workout.
“Some days, you get mad,” said the former Deep Run High School star who has missed the first seven games of his senior year recovering from offseason knee surgery. “Some days, you don’t feel you’re even a part of the team.”
Exum said he has good days and bad days dealing with the emotions of sitting out. He lives alone and spends a lot of time thinking about his situation in solitude. He does talk by phone or text message with his parents and sister for support. Exum said he tries to remain upbeat around the No. 16 Hokies (6-1, 3-0 ACC) in his role as a leader.
His position coach, assistant Torian Gray, said it’s clear that some days, the situation is taking its toll on Exum.
“You know he wants to be a part of it. He wants to be out there contributing,” Gray said. “I know that’s hard on him. You kind of see that in his body language at times.”
The gregarious, outgoing Exum has scaled back most of his non-essential activities as he focuses on working his way back from surgery to fix a torn anterior-cruciate ligament and lateral and medial meniscus and a broken bone in his right knee he suffered playing pickup basketball on campus in January.
“There’s really nothing to celebrate or be too happy about until I play again,” said Exum, who will decide during this week if he’s ready to return for Virginia Tech’s game Saturday against Duke. “I try to keep a focus and a tunnel vision of what I need to do to get back and play at a high level.”
Gray said last week he expects Exum to play Saturday against Duke, but Exum wasn’t ready to proclaim himself back.
“I’m taking it practice-by-practice, day-by-day,” Exum said late week, during the Hokies’ bye.
And while Exum is known for his outgoing personality, entertaining Twitter exchanges with fans and other players and his passion for recording his own songs, close friend James Gayle said Exum has always been focused, first and foremost, on football.
“Antone’s a guy who, football to him is everything,” Gayle, a senior defensive end, said. “He puts everything he has into football. So for him not to be on the field, it hurts him.”
Gayle recalled that early in their Tech careers, he, Exum and former players David Wilson and Telvion Clark sneaked into Cassell Coliseum, the Hokies’ basketball gym, late at night for a workout. The foursome ran the arena stairs and did sprints on the court to see who would quit first.
Gayle said Exum ended up working himself until he got sick and passed out.
“I tapped out before the throw-up,” Gayle said with a laugh.
Now, Gayle finds himself urging the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Exum to take it easy at times, to rest his body and realize how impressive it is that he’s been medically cleared to return to action nine months after major surgery.
But Exum is far from satisfied. He opted not to play the past two games because he didn’t feel he was ready to perform at the level he expects himself too.
When he does come back, Exum expects to be in the starting lineup, despite the strong play of freshmen Brandon Facyson and Kendall Fuller, who have filled in during his absence.
“My motivation is beyond just trying to get back and play again,” Exum said. “I want to get back and be the best corner in the country.”
Exum said he isn’t worried that his NFL draft status could be affected by his injury or by all the playing time he’s missed this year, as long as he gets back on the field before the season ends, and plays up to his potential.
“The people at the next level haven’t forgotten what I can do on the football field,” said Exum, who led Tech with five interceptions last year and was a second-team All-ACC selection. “They know what I’m capable of.”