This weekend, the Lincoln University Lions football team will take on Bowie State in their annual homecoming game. For one player, it's a game many thought he'd never play.
When you meet Maurice Bertrand, who stands 6 foot 2 with 280 pounds of muscle, two words come to mind: "gentle giant." Except, apparently, that's not accurate when he's on the field.
"You know, teammates, they got a couple jokes," Bertrand said. "Lip. They call me 'lip' 'cause I got a little lip."
Bertrand trash talks. But if anyone deserves to talk some trash, it's him. Last year he nearly died in Camden, N.J.
"I was having a barbecue," he said. "It was a Sunday, June 26, 6:30 — never forget it — and we had ran out of barbecue sauce. And I was on my way to the store to go get some more barbecue sauce for the barbecue, and on my way there, I seen an altercation from someone at the barbecue. And he was getting jumped by a few other males, so I intervened, broke it up, and made sure he was alright and basically continued my walk back to the store."
He thought the incident was over. On his way back from the store, he said, the people he had seen fighting came back and started to fire shots at him.
"I got shot basically five times. After the second shot, I collapsed," he said.
'Will I be able to play again?'
Bertrand had been shot with high-caliber bullets: once in the back, once in the ankle, once in the shoulder, and twice in the leg.
"My femur was shattered," Bertrand said. "Like, I had no femur. As of right now, I have a metal rod in there from my hip down to my knee."
His coach, O.J. Abanishe, says he visited Bertrand in the hospital after he received news of the shooting. He says the prognosis was grim.
"Some of the doctors thought, well, he probably won't play again. And they even told us, they said, 'Well, we'll tell some patients things just to keep them going — just to keep going to make sure that they continue their rehab so they don't get frustrated,' and things like that."
Bertrand said, "First thing I asked the doctor was: 'Will I be able to play again?' That's the first question I asked. And you know, he told me first I've got to see if I can walk again."
Not only did Bertrand walk again. He played this season. He hit every milestone of his recovery months ahead of schedule. Other than his scars, it's hard to tell anything ever happened to him.
Doctors told him, if it weren't for his size, the bullets would have pierced his vital organs, and he'd be dead. That's right. His muscles acted as a sort of bullet proof vest.
Abanishe says Bertrand's recovery was possible because of relentless hard work.
Getting a second chance
"Every week, he straightened out that leg a little bit more," he said. "He went from walking on a cane to walking without a cane to jogging to sprinting to being able to do a squat. So you saw how it kind of went step by step by step by step by step. And each step might have seemed small to us, but it was huge to him and led all the way back to this season."
Not everyone gets a second chance, said Bertrand. "So just the fact that I was able to get a second chance just to live, I just had to come back and just play football if I was still given the opportunity," he said.
Bertrand is looking to play football at the next level, whatever level that may be. But if he can't, he'll be looking to put his degree in Internet technology to work in the mobile communications field. He already has a job lined up for next year if he wants it.
If his rebound from catastrophic injuries seems remarkable to those around him, their surprise doesn't seem to be rubbing off on Bertrand. He says he thinks if anyone else were in his situation, they'd find a way to come back.
He says he doesn't want to be treted any differently from anyone else. "You know, just because I have a rod in my leg or I've been shot five times doesn't mean — I don't want to be treated no different, no other way," he said. "I want to just be a regular player that's out there on the field. Don't treat me different: 'Oh, Bertrand, you relax.' No. I want to do what he's doing and he can do what I'm doing."
Despite long odds, Maurice Bertrand, number 53, will take the field in this weekend's homecoming game.