NORMAN — When Tom Wort suffered a major knee injury his freshman year, Austin Box helped keep his spirits up during the long, tedious rehabilitation process.
When Wort at times struggled last season in the heart of Oklahoma's defense, Box was on the sideline providing encouragement and tutelage.
Oklahoma coaches and teammates say the sophomore middle linebacker's play during two-a-days has been a “night and day difference” from a year ago, when Wort sometimes was out of position, leading to some big plays.
Determined to learn from last year's ups and downs, Wort put in the work this summer. In the weight room. In the film room. Every time he needed extra motivation he thought about Box, his close friend who died three months ago from a toxic mix of painkillers.
“I'm playing for him,” Wort said. “The only reason I'm able to play this game is I play with heart. He's heavy on my heart, giving me even more reason to play with heart. That's the way I'm going to honor him.”
Friends on and off the field, Wort and Box competed for the middle linebacker job last fall. When Box was sidelined early in two-a-days with a back injury, Wort, a redshirt freshman, was thrown into the fire.
Wort finished with 66 tackles. He was named second-team Freshman All-American by one publication. But several times his motor ran too fast.
“I would get to the sidelines, and Austin would tell me what happened,” Wort said. “If I made a play, he was right there celebrating with me. It was like having another coach. He helped me out, there's no doubt about it. To have an older guy look after you is priceless.”
When Box returned midway through the season, he eventually replaced Wort. The change solidified the defense. The Sooners went on a five-game winning streak. Wort, though, still played a few series every game.
“I never felt I wasn't supposed to be on the field,” Wort said. “Being out there, gaining experience, of course you're going to get better.”
Coach Bob Stoops said Wort is a lot better.
One morning early in fall camp, Stoops sauntered over to Wort during stretching drills to compliment Wort's improvement over the summer.
“Like night and day from a year ago,” Stoops said. “His understanding, where to be and what to do, his confidence and his knee are all better. Tom has really changed.”
Defensive coordinator Brent Venables echoed Stoops' assessment, stating Wort has a more in-depth understanding of the defense, the X's and O's, the whys and the hows.
Born and raised in England before he moved to New Braunfels, Texas, in middle school, Wort's biggest improvement has been pass coverage.
“Moving around better has helped me with that,” Wort said. “But it's also understanding where my safety help is, what the other guys are doing in the defense.”
Weakside linebacker Travis Lewis played alongside Wort last season. Currently sidelined by a broken toe, Lewis has watched his teammate blossom.
“He's really grown up a lot,” Lewis said. “He's rarely making busts. He has a great understanding of the issues. It all started with summer workouts. He showed up Day 1 and had his best summer.”
Stoops said health and inexperience contributed to Wort's inconsistent play.
“He basically was a true freshman because he missed an entire year with no spring,” Stoops said. “Your knee isn't quite recovered, you can play the year after a knee injury. But I don't think you totally get it behind you until the second year where you start to feel you're back to normal.”
Wort's knee is back to normal, but his heart understandably aches from the loss of Box.
He misses his friend. He misses his mentor. He remembers the times they hung out together. He remembers those unexciting, laborious, days his first year he was rehabbing an injury while teammates played in front of 85,000 fans.
“I was so down, so low,” Wort said. “Ryan Reynolds' number (8) and Austin's number (12) are written on my wrist because it was those two guys that built me up. Austin meant so much to me before he passed. All we did was get even closer, work out together, watch film together.”
At OU Media Day, Wort spent more than 30 minutes with reporters. After answering questions from one group about how much he misses his good friend, another group would show up. Wort once again would go through the pain he's still sorting through on a daily basis.
Box's legacy is a diligent work ethic, toughness to play through injuries, savvy to play instinctively and playing the game with passion.
“There are so many great stories I have about Austin,” Wort said. “Since Day 1, when I showed up as a recruit, Austin had my back. He was one of my closest friends here. We spent so many hours together.
“This season, I'm going to invest my time in the film room, workouts, everything, to honor him the way he would want to play, the way he'd want me to play. If you want to say that's motivation it definitely is.”