STILLWATER — The pain felt like a defensive lineman had kicked Devin Hedgepeth in the back of the heel.
He tried to take another step and keep up with Darryl Surgent, the Louisiana-Lafayette receiver he was supposed to cover.
“Then I just collapsed,” he said. “And then I knew.”
Hedgepeth laid on the turf at Boone Pickens Stadium with another torn Achilles, his third in less than a year. His second consecutive season was over before the calendar turned to October.
And now, he doesn't know if he'll ever play football again.
But don't feel sorry for Hedgepeth. He doesn't want that. He doesn't need that.
Because on the OSU campus, Hedgepeth is more than the typical student-athlete. He is, simply, one of the school's top engineering students with a bright future after completing his degree.
This spring, he'll officially be inducted into Alpha Pi Mu, an honor society reserved only for the top 20 percent of OSU's industrial engineering junior class.
“You can look at (the injury) like a freak accident,” Hedgepeth said. “Or you can look at it like, obviously, it's very rare that people tear their Achilles three times in a row. Maybe God's just trying to tell me something.
“I would have never stopped (playing football) on my own, but maybe God's trying to push me in a different direction.”
A trip to the barber shop first sparked Hedgepeth's interest in industrial engineering.
The conversation was, coincidentally, with Joseph Randle's oldest brother, Larry.
Hedgepeth was a senior at Derby High School in Wichita, which is also the hometown of the Randles, and was planning on majoring in business. But Larry told him about his career path and the way industrial engineering could combine management, math and conceptual skills.
Hedgepeth was naturally intrigued. After all, friends, classmates and teammates have often called him a bit of a nerd.
If “nerd” means enjoying learning in a classroom setting — and working hard to achieve his goals there — he'll gladly accept that label.
Hedgepeth credits football with helping teach him how to be organized and disciplined with managing his time.
He even uses the same mental approach with his schoolwork as he does with football. Each class is a practice. Each test is game day. And his classmates are his opponents.
“You just got to find something to really fire yourself up, make yourself want to study, make yourself want to learn,” Hedgepeth said. “Once you do that, it really is fun for me to just be able to learn and pick up on stuff.”
Camille Deyong, who was Hedgepeth's professor for intro to industrial engineering, quickly noticed that work ethic. Though Hedgepeth was generally quiet and unassuming in class, if he raised his hand, his question was one that needed to be asked.
“He is on top of it,” Deyong said. “He's listening, he's reading ahead and thinking about it. I don't know how he does it, quite frankly.”
Those feelings were only solidified when Deyong, the adviser for the Alpha Pi Mu honor society, received a list of the newest induction candidates this fall. There were no more than six juniors who had qualified. Hedgepeth was one.
“He would be a poster child for industrial engineering,” she said. “He is just the epitome of what you would want the student-athlete to be.
“I wish we could clone him. With or without football, we would take 100 Devin Hedgepeths.”
Even with all that success in the classroom, Hedgepeth's last 15 months have featured their difficult moments.
He had never been injury-prone. Until last year, his worst injury was a dislocated growth plate in his ankle his freshman year of high school. Even then, he played in a game and went through a couple practices before seeing a doctor.
But he knew what was likely ahead when he was helped off the field on that September Saturday. He had first torn his Achilles almost exactly a year earlier against Texas A&M, then again last December while getting out of bed.
Confirmation of the worst came from teammates almost immediately after Hedgepeth was helped to the sideline. They gasped when the OSU medical staff took off his shoe. Then they held him down, so he wouldn't see how bad the injury looked.
“I was sitting there and just thinking about how I'd have to crutch again and be in a cast,” Hedgepeth said.
Within two days, Hedgepeth was in and out of surgery. He then went home for about a week, so his mother, Lesia, could take care of him.
About two months in a cast up to his knee followed, starting with one that was slanted and gradually moving to one that kept the foot in a neutral position. Then he had crutches and a boot for a week. Then he could walk in that boot.
And just recently, Hedgepeth has started walking short distances in a normal shoe. He's also began doing light rehab exercises to strengthen his muscles, such as picking up marbles with his toes and using his ankle to trace his ABCs in the air.
Around the start of the new year, he's scheduled begin more intense rehab.
“The main thing is just mentally, just trying to get back to a regular lifestyle,” Hedgepeth said. “I have my up days and my down days, obviously. My family definitely helped me get through everything. But it's not as bad as I thought it would be at all.”
Still, Hedgepeth has now missed the vast majority of two seasons. He admitted watching the Cowboys' historical run to the Big 12 title and a victory in the Fiesta Bowl last season was especially hard. But more than games, he misses being on the field with his teammates during practice.
Hedgepeth has, however, still attended every team and position meeting this season and is a fixture on the sideline during home games. And he's kept his spirits high throughout the entire process.
“I never saw him get discouraged or depressed or anything about it when I was around him,” teammate Brodrick Brown said. “He always had a smile on his face. He just kept it moving. That's one thing he really does.”
Hedgepeth has asked doctors this basic question — why does this injury keep happening? But he doesn't ask himself this one — what if he had waited a bit longer to return to the field after his second torn Achilles?
“That's not one of those things I really think about it,” he said. “I definitely don't regret coming back that soon. What happened, happened.”
Hedgepeth has not officially decided if he will try to make another comeback.
OSU has had its share of injury success stories, Kye Staley's return from a shredded knee the most recent and most notable. But it will be a difficult task, and a risk.
Regardless, Hedgepeth will be a part of the Cowboys' Heart of Dallas Bowl festivities and is always welcome around the football facilities.
Academically, Hedgepeth has recently added a marketing minor and is on track to graduate — with honors, of course — next year.
Deyong believes Hedgepeth will be “sought after” for multiple job opportunities, if she can't convince him to come back for graduate school. Hedgepeth ultimately sees himself in a management position, perhaps eventually climbing to the CEO level.
Three Achilles injuries may have taken Hedgepeth's ability to play football. But they didn't take away his ability to thrive at OSU.
“Football's given me so many amazing opportunities,” he said. “I'm going to have the chance to come out of school with no debt, because I have a scholarship and I'm getting my school paid for. I'm definitely taking advantage of my classes.
“There are so many things to look forward to. I'm definitely going to be all right, so I definitely don't want (OSU fans) to feel sorry for me. I'm going to be OK.”