TROY — Every. Step. Hurt. And. He. Still. Kept. Going.
It was painful to watch. On a different level, it was inspiring, too.
Tray Eafford was sick and tired of missing time. Treatment on his tender left hamstring during the week did just enough to allow him to play against Georgia State last Saturday night.
He was limited, but he was lined up in the slot when opportunity knocked. On second-and-6 from the Troy 34, Eafford ran a slant across the middle and popped open. That wasn’t all that popped.
“After I came out of my break, it was pretty good pain,” said Eafford, Troy’s 6-foot-1, 198-pound junior receiver from Leesburg, Ga. “I feel like it popped a little bit. Yeah, it was pretty tough. I just had to fight through it.”
Quarterback Kaleb Barker saw Eafford break open, then saw him laboring after making his cut.
“I almost didn’t throw it to him,” Barker said after the game.
But Eafford was the open man and Troy, already down 21-7 in the second quarter, needed a play. Eafford caught Barker’s pass about 15-20 yards down the field. Eafford kept going, his limp getting worse as he covered more and more yardage. It was almost a shame he was so open because no defender was close enough to put him down.
He got inside the Georgia State 20 and made a hard cut to buy a couple more yards. He tried to break a tackle inside the 5-yard line. In all, his play to the 2-yard line gained 64 yards — the longest play of his career and the longest play from scrimmage of the season for Troy.
He stayed down for a few minutes and was helped off the field after aggravating the hamstring.
Not long after, he heard a call for a certain personnel group, knew he was in it, and put himself back on the field. Troy coaches didn’t realize he returned to the game until they saw him in the middle of the next play.
“We didn’t know,” offensive coordinator Ryan Pugh said Tuesday. “He heard the personnel call and he just went in the game. He wanted to play. I think that tells you what kind of young man he is and how important the game is to him.”
Eafford did not play against Missouri and was very limited against South Alabama. He tweaked the hamstring against Southern Miss — when he caught seven passes for 110 yards and a touchdown — and made the trip, but was less than full go, to Akron. Missing out on another Sun Belt game was out of the question.
In all, Eafford has 17 catches for 270 yards and two touchdowns this season. He has always been a big-play threat. His eight career touchdown receptions have gone for 165, 25, 29, 40, 43, 50 and 60 yards. He said he was glad to be back out there.
“Actually, it meant a lot to me. I missed some time earlier in the season. I wasn’t planning on it. Injuries happen in football,” Eafford said Tuesday. “After I missed a couple games, I was like, ‘Man, I got to fight through this, no matter what.’
“I feel like I came back fairly quick. After two or three games, I came back, fought through practice. I was going to give it all I got, hurt or not. I was going to try to finish the game, but they took me out.”
Coaches may not have noticed his return to the game, but they clearly recognized his effort.
“He is what we refer to as a TKG. He’s a Troy Kind of Guy,” Trojan head coach Chip Lindsey said. “He’s tough-minded. He wants to do anything he can do to help the team win. He’s low ego, he’s a team guy.
“He didn’t do much during the week because we knew he had that (hamstring). The other night, he started hurting and then he made the big-time play where he almost scored. I thought he was going to be done and then we got into a certain personnel group and he just ran out there.
“They re-taped him and tried to get it right, but we’ll see how he is by the end of the week. Probably something he is going to have to deal with probably the rest of the year until we get him an extended amount of rest.”
Eafford said several teammates came up to him to congratulate him for his effort.
“That’s amazing, man. I came to the sideline, a lot of guys were like, ‘Man, I don’t know if I could do that. You pull a hamstring, I’d go down,’” Eafford said. “One of the Georgia State chain guys was like, ‘Man, you’re pretty tough with that.’ I was like, thank you, man. It’s just an effort thing. I couldn’t give up.”
Even with Troy likely out of conference contention, Eafford isn’t ready to give up on his team. The Trojans play at Coastal Carolina on Saturday afternoon.
“We’re going game by game. We’re going to treat every game like it’s our championship,” Eafford said. “We’re just going to fight every day, go through practice, and try our best to win every game. We’ll hold our hands — defense, offense — we’re going to hold each other’s hands as they come on and off the field.”
He is determined to fight for this season.
“That’s the thing about football, you can’t let little things keep you down or your team won’t be the same,” he said. “If things start going downhill, we try to keep each other up so we can get back in that saddle.”