On Sept. 1, when he and his teammates bounce up and down in the Beaver Stadium tunnel as "Zombie Nation" reverberates off the metal bleachers, forgive John Reid for getting a little emotional. By that point, the vision of returning to the field will have replayed in his head for 512 days.
When Reid fell to the ground holding his left knee last April, he wasn't scared. He was upset and frustrated. A non-contact injury, later diagnosed as an ACL tear, ended Reid's 2017 season before it even started. Months removed from an encouraging Rose Bowl performance with offseason College Football Playoff hopes blossoming, the game-changing cornerback was forced to become a bystander — a helpful teammate who wore a red cap and headset, not a white helmet.
But Reid, after conquering a time-consuming rehab process, is back to playing speed. He took part in spring practice and is competing in 7-on-7 drills this summer with glowing reviews. He is ready to make up for lost time and re-establish himself as one of the Big Ten's best corners. And if anyone forgot about him while he was gone, well, Reid has a choice word or two.
"If people forgot, they're gonna realize real quick when I come back," Reid said stroking his chin and smiling, leaning back in his chair in a Lasch Building office one afternoon. "I believe in myself, and I have a lot of confidence in myself. I feel really good. If people want to sleep, that's cool. I'm not too worried about it."
In fact, Reid doesn't seem to be overly worried about anything. He isn't anxious about his knee holding up. He isn't concerned about his mental state. He isn't uptight about his return.
Reid — a data sciences major who thrived in an internship with IBM last summer — has always been a cerebral, collected player. Before the ACL tear, not much fazed him. And in the face of a long-term, frustrating injury, Reid showed that same resolve.
Unfortunately for Reid, he had momentum at the time of the tear. During the heart of spring ball 2017, the corner said he was making some of his best breaks of his career, and his drill work was coming together perfectly. His game was "jelling." Then, he went down.
"It wasn't something I could control," Reid said. "Some people worry, 'Am I going to come back the same?' I wasn't worried about that, because I knew with my work ethic and my focus, I wasn't going to let myself come back the same player. In my mind, OK, little setback, I'm going to come back even better than what I was before. ... That's what I've always been working toward."
The day after he underwent surgery, Reid began rehabbing. Seven months later, Penn State head coach James Franklin said on the Penn State Coaches Show that the corner "could probably play" toward the end of the 2017 season. But Reid was redshirting. It didn't make sense to bring him back for a couple regular season games and the bowl game, not with the playoff already out of the picture.
So, Reid maintained his ultimate teammate status. He dissected opposing receivers in real-time, discovered tendencies and relayed that information to fellow corners Grant Haley, Christian Campbell, Tariq Castro-Fields and Lamont Wade. Were the wideouts tipping where they'd break? What did their body language show? These were the questions Reid answered.
But in 2018, Reid is hoping to answer a different question: How does Penn State replace Haley and Campbell? The starting duo in 2017 — one drafted, the other signed as a free agent — are off to the league. That reality may have Penn State fans understandably nervous.
But not Reid. Not in his comeback campaign.
"I want to go out there and let people see what I can really do. Let my game show. Let my swag out," the New Jersey native said. "I want to be great. I'm not going to put a bar on it or anything like that. But I want to make a lot of plays. Big plays. I want to shut down the best guys. That's the mentality I have. I'm trying to take it to another level this year."
This idea of Reid dominating isn't born out of delusional self-confidence, either. The 2016 honorable mention All-Big Ten selection, who led the Nittany Lions with 10 passes defended a couple years ago, has an All-American skill set even post-surgery.
His teammates see it on a daily basis. Penn State linebacker Koa Farmer said Reid "doesn't even look like he got hurt," while fellow corner Amani Oruwariye believes his teammate is always "one step ahead of everyone."
Both players attributed Reid's success in recovery to his routine, one built out of habit and necessity. Reid said this spring he arrived for treatment in the trainer's room at 8 a.m. every practice day. An 18-credit semester kept him busy until practice, and when that wrapped up around 7 p.m., he retreated inside his second home, the Lasch Building, to break down the session's film — while still wearing his pads. That's right. More than a dozen times this spring, Reid popped his helmet off after practice, grabbed his iPad and grilled his locker mates, quarterback Trace McSorley and wide receiver DeAndre Thompkins.
"I'm like, 'Hey Trace, what were you thinking right here when I was playing this? What did you see? What defense did you read? What if I had did this, what would you do?'" Reid said, bobbing his head back and forth. "That's my process."
But why not take off his pads first? "They're not the easiest to get off," Reid said smiling. "So I just keep 'em on."
What Reid is really saying is, I'm not wasting any time. And after sitting out for the better part of a year, no one can blame him for that.
For someone whose competitive nature drove him to speed training when he was nine years old, for someone who never missed a season of football dating back to Pop Warner, 2017 was difficult for Reid. He looked on as Penn State's national title dreams evaporated in Columbus and East Lansing. He was an observer to the Nittany Lions' thrilling Fiesta Bowl victory.
Reid made a unique impact on Penn State's 2017 season, just not the kind he had envisioned. Going under the knife was never a part of the plan.
Now, that's behind Reid. What lies ahead — on Sept. 1 and beyond — is hope.
"I'm itching. I'm really ready," Reid said, eyes lighting up like a kid on Christmas morning. "I miss playing in that environment. Everyone cheering, even at away stadiums. Big crowd. Just that feeling of being out there, I miss it. I can't wait for the season to get here."