By TOM ZEBOLD
USF Senior Writer
TAMPA - The summer of 2010 was a time Sterling Griffin will never forget.
Days were hot. Practices were far less hectic than during a demanding regular season. The team was just trying to stay in shape.
The young wide receiver was working on the field with his team preparing for what he hoped to be a solid sophomore campaign as a Bull. That's when something went horribly wrong during a drill he'd done so many times before.
While making a crisp cut, the promising product from Miami got his cleat stuck in the turf. His body spun around but his leg failed to go with it.
"I just heard a whole bunch of crack and pop," he said. "I looked down and was just all awkward."
A hospital trip followed and his ankle was popped back into place. The diagnosis was a broken fibula and torn ligaments.
No more drills. No more conditioning. No more fun for a while.
"It was a shocker," Griffin admitted.
Doctors told Griffin he'd miss half of the upcoming season and he wouldn't be 100 percent healthy for a year.
The weeks went by. The Bulls kept playing. Griffin kept rehabbing, and before he knew it the season was in the books.
"It was really tough," Griffin said. "Some games I wanted to be out there so bad. I just cried knowing that I couldn't be out there.
"There was nothing I could do," he added. "It just hurt real bad - like losing your girlfriend."
The loss of a season didn't mean Griffin didn't gain anything, however.
As a true freshman, the skinny receiver stuck to the basics while getting through a full season of action in 2009.
"He was like a young colt trying to find his way," USF wide receivers coach Phil McGeoghan said.
The name Sterling might sound flashy, but Griffin was far from a shiny product on the field.
"He was just out there kind of running around, trying to catch some balls and trying to block some people," McGeoghan said with a chuckle.
Having time to sit and wait for another opportunity truly opened up Griffin's eyes to the game in 2010.
As his leg healed, Griffin's football IQ skyrocketed as a student. He studied just like the healthy receivers did and acted like he was going into each game with pads on.
"He wanted the tests before the game. He wanted the tips and reminders," McGeoghan said. "He wanted the things that the guys going to play were going to get. He wanted to know what the game plan was. He took it real seriously."
Griffin also served as a coach on the field, giving his teammates pointers from what he saw on the sidelines. Relegated to becoming a cheerleader, the receiver portrayed a "rah, rah" attitude while cheering his teammates on.
He kept his emotions of personal frustration in his back pocket in the process.
"I didn't want to show it," he said.
What Griffin could do physically, he did in all-out fashion.
Rehab was his playing field. No days off and lots of work in the pool. Trainers became familiar faces. McGeoghan turned into a confidant during constant meetings in his office.
"It made me humble," he said. "I was hungrier going into the next season."
Much more built for it, too.
Griffin has gained 15 pounds since the injury and now fits the mold of a sculpted receiver at 195 pounds. Perhaps now he's a stallion by McGeoghan's standards.
"I took it as, 'OK, this is a chance to get stronger in my upper body," Griffin said.
Griffin's lower half was strong enough to perform come springtime, and that's when he encountered the greatest challenge in the long process.
"I was so timid and afraid," he said. "I didn't know if I cut, I might break it again and start over from zero."
Griffin's confidence was back to 100 percent by the middle of spring and USF coaches were thoroughly impressed by the end of preseason camp.
"He grades out very high when we scrimmage and when we have games because he understands what we want out of him," McGeoghan said. "He's become a guy who is going to do it the way you ask him to do it."
What translated into his first game back was the defining moment of a college career that's starting to get back into stride.
Griffin took the field as an active player Saturday at Notre Dame for the first time since the International Bowl back on Jan. 2, 2010 - USF's 2009 season finale. He looked anything but hesitant while catching eight passes for 75 yards, both career highs, against an Irish defense that had a huge crowd behind it.
"It was a long time coming," Griffin said.