CHARLOTTE — Austin Corbett smiles a lot for a guy who keeps getting kicked in the teeth.
His day job is to protect quarterbacks, but lately, the Panthers right guard has been doing a lot of protecting the feelings of others when they don't know quite what to say to him after the most recent twist of the knife in his left knee.
Corbett's out for the season after the medial collateral ligament in his left knee let go Sunday when he was hit from the side. It's the same knee, but not the same ligament, as the torn anterior cruciate from January which led to 10 months of rehab — 294 days, to be precise — before he was able to play a grand total of four games.
"The beautiful game of football," Corbett said with a grin and a shrug earlier this week when condolences were offered yet again. "So 2023 is not my year. But we'll be all right."
He says that awfully casually for someone who has been so much and is about to go through more. He's flying to California next week to have surgery to repair the MCL, and he should be fine by the start of the offseason program. But as has become his custom through the previous rehab, he was able to find the silver lining, the fact that his reconstructed ACL survived the hit intact, a testament to the months of work he did leading up to his short-lived return.
"It could have been a lot worse there," Corbett said. "I had been doing all my rehab, and my knee is the strongest it's ever been."
Corbett's approach to the first rehab was a testament to his ability to compartmentalize and persevere. He was on track to major in pre-med at Nevada before he and the team realized how good he was at football, and he's approached the injuries with a medical curiosity. "I've strained my MCL before, and it wasn't presenting the same way," he said of Sunday's latest. "So I really thought it was more meniscus."
And while there are dark days in any rehab, he's maintained a general cheerfulness that's hard to square with the horrible luck he's endured, and people have noticed.
"He's the ultimate competitor, teammate, stands for everything we stand for really," head coach Frank Reich said. "Really hard to see him have that injury. But I know he has the resolve and the fortitude, that he'll bounce back. It's unfortunate for him and for our team, but love him and what he is, even though what he's contributed this year, it hasn't been a ton on the field, is very significant."
Corbett admitted Wednesday that he realized some damage was likely from the moment he went down, but when the team's medical staff offered to do a deeper investigation in the blue medical tent, he waved them off.
"We got in the tent, and Doc was asking, 'Do you want to look at this?'" Corbett said. "I'm like, no, I'm fine. I've got sleeves, sock, pants, brace; it's going to be too hard, it's going to take too much time to be able to get all the stuff off.
"So, I just tightened up my brace and got through it. I know I looked like an idiot just running, but the game itself was too stressful. So, between plays, I wouldn't think about it."
Now, he has the rest of the season to consider what is clearly misfortune, but it's hard to tell from his attitude. He said that he missed head athletic trainer Kevin King, assistant athletic trainer Katy Rogers, and the rest of his friends on their staff and the athletic training room that has become a second home. He joked that since he and Brady Christensen were both injured in New Orleans in January, only to come back and get hurt again (Christensen broke his ankle in January and ruptured a biceps tendon in September), he needed to rejoin his buddy.
"I just had to make sure you're OK," Corbett said in reference to Christensen. "So I wanted to, you know, get myself hurt to come check in on you."
But the jokes and the smiles are also a bit of a mask, because every time a scalpel touches the human body, it also cuts into the soul of players who put so much into playing a game that does this to them. So there's an emotional burden in addition to the physical one.
Corbett admitted that going over the results of his Monday MRI was difficult in a way the first injury wasn't, since when an ACL tears — which he knew immediately because he felt the valgus movement — you understand you're going to be out for a while.
"The fact that I was able to finish the game that I was really OK; like I wasn't in too much pain, the knee really didn't swell up that much," he began. "So when, after the MRI and the Doc's saying this is it, your season's over, it hit me a lot harder than with my ACL, just because ACL is like your season is over anyway.
"So this was, it was tough. But as the day went, as we started talking about different answers and solutions and how we're going to go about it. Just being able to get a plan and understand what the future is just made it a lot easier instead of staring into space with nothing to go off of."
As hard as it was to hear those words — "your season's over" — after 294 days of intense rehab, the harder part might have been the next call he made, the one to his wife, Madison. She's stood by him throughout each step of the first rehab, which was hard for the family at multiple levels. The Corbett family came here immediately after a Super Bowl run with the Rams, moved across the country, and were settling into a new place when their first real offseason was scuttled by the fact Austin was on crutches and unable to do things as simple as help at home with their young daughter Landry or then 2-year-old son Ford.
"My head just dropped instantly when Doc told me that was it for this year," Corbett said. "And having to make the call, it was hard. Madison knew as soon as she answered the phone she could just tell by my voice. Coming off the field (Sunday) and looking up, I looked up to her, I gave her the thumbs up, and she knows she doesn't believe me at the time when I was giving a thumbs up, she's like, you're just trying to make me feel good. But I generally did. I was like, no, I'm good. Like we're still playing. And so every, every few series, I'd still give her that thumbs up in the stands.
"But she knew in my voice as soon as I gave her that call. It's been tough, but again, she's been the same. We have the answers now; we know what we're going to do moving forward. We understand like we're actually going to get a true offseason, and we're going to get a true training camp."
The timing of his surgery (he's going to enjoy Thanksgiving today and fly to California next week for the surgery with Dr. Neal ElAttrache, who rebuilt his ACL) means he should be back in three months or so, which will allow for a "normal" offseason for a change. He should be able to begin the offseason program with his teammates and ease into 2024 instead of coming off a 10-month layoff to play three games in 12 days as he did in the Houston-Indy-Chicago swing. "That was a ride for the first trial back," he cracked, acknowledging that he probably didn't look his best in those games.
But it was important to him to come back, just like it's important for him to come back again, with a smile on his face, even though he knows there are hard days ahead. He was asked if he had ever considered not coming back or calling it a career at 28 years old, and his answer was immediate.
"No, I love this game so much," he said. "There's so much about this game that is everything to me that no matter what — it's such a brutal game, we know that. But even now, I understand the lowest of lows of this game, but you can truly see how high this game can lift you and, just from an emotional standpoint, how much this game brings, not only to myself but to my family, like it truly is the best game in the world. . . .
"Yeah, I mean, it's just like, not much you can do. Football is going to throw what it does at you year in and year out. And the only thing is you just got to keep going. It's truly just that Keep Pounding mindset every single day that things are going to go wrong; you can't control that. And so when you just keep going, you understand — if you believe in God, if you don't — like, I truly just find comfort knowing my heavenly father is going to take care of me. It's so much more than just a couple of years of playing football."
That's a hard thing to pull off, a sense of peace and gratitude about his situation when the natural and easy reaction would be anger or despair.
But there, during a week of bad news — in a year 2023 that seems filled with too many of them — Austin Corbett stood there talking about it the way he has so often.
With a smile on his face.