James Britton suffered what was described at the time as a season-ending injury on Sept. 20 against Rutgers. Five days later, Britton — a senior inside linebacker — underwent surgery to repair a foot injury that is commonly known as a Lisfranc fracture.
Doctors reattached ligaments that support the mid-foot and used a screw to anchor them to the bone. The recovery time from such an injury is typically four to six months.
Having finally earned an integral role with the defense as a senior after serving three seasons on special teams, Britton didn’t like hearing that his collegiate career was over so he decided to do something about it.
Britton undertook an ambitious and rigorous rehabilitation regimen and succeeded in coming back much faster than even the most optimistic projections. He’s dressed and warmed up for Navy’s past two games and could very well return to the playing field on Tuesday against San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl.
“All the doctors and trainers said it was a real longshot that Jimmy would play again this season. He refused to believe that,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “Jimmy worked incredibly hard to rehab … they had to kick him out of the training room. I’m super excited for Jimmy that he has been able to come back and given himself a chance to play.”
— James Britton
Britton was recruited to Navy as a safety and played that position as a freshman while appearing in 11 games on special teams. He switched to outside linebacker as a sophomore and was once again a valuable contributor on the kickoff and punt coverage units, contributing seven tackles.
Defensive coordinator Buddy Green moved Britton to inside linebacker in 2013 with the intention of starting him alongside standout performer Cody Peterson. The 6-foot-2, 223-pound Britton struggled to make the adjustment and the coaching staff wound up shifting D.J. Sargenti from outside to inside linebacker to fill the lineup vacancy.
Britton was once again relegated to special teams and saw only minimal playing time with the defense since Peterson and Sargenti rarely came out of games. Determined to break into the inside linebacker rotation as a senior, Britton got bigger and stronger during the offseason then showed during August camp that he was much more physical and aggressive.
Receiving significant action behind starters Jordan Drake and Daniel Gonzales, Britton got off to a strong start this season, recording a career-high 12 tackles against Temple and totaling 24 through four games. He made a big interception against Texas State, returning it 17 yards to set up a touchdown.
“Jimmy is a great kid who has always worked very, very hard. He was playing the best football of his career at the time of the injury,” Navy inside linebackers coach Steve Johns said. “It’s been nice to see Jimmy back on the practice field and I really hope he [gets] into this last game.”
Dr. Jeff Fair, head trainer for the football team, said Britton requested a rehab schedule that would give him a shot at playing again this season. He began by walking, then jogging in an on-campus swimming pool and then graduated to running on the Alter G treadmill, an anti-gravity apparatus that reduces an individual’s body weight and thus minimizes impact on injured lower extremities.
“I was in the training room all the time doing whatever I possibly could. I’m thankful to all the trainers who helped me out and made sure I was doing what I needed to do,” Britton said.
Britton also performed resistance exercises using stretch bands to strengthen the calf of the injured foot. He was eventually cleared to resume practice without restriction just prior to the Nov. 28 game at South Alabama.
“First of all, Jimmy is an extremely tough kid, both mentally and physically. He endured a lot of pain to rehab the way he did,” Dr. Fair said. “You’ve got to give him credit for being persistent, working hard and having a good attitude.”
Britton tested the ankle during warmups prior to the South Alabama game, but could not go full speed and therefore did not play. He was moving much better in practice in the days leading up to the Army game, but was not needed because the defense was on the field for a limited number of plays and the two starters — Drake and Gonzales — did not need a rest.
“It would have been nice to play in my last Army-Navy game, but we won so I wasn’t upset at all,” Britton said. “Jordan and Danny did a great job and the team didn’t need me that day.”
Green said Britton still seems a bit bothered by the ankle and remains a step slow. However, Green — the veteran defensive coordinator — is hopeful the senior Britton will show continued improvement and will be 100 percent if called upon against San Diego State on Tuesday night.
“Jimmy has really busted his butt to get back and we would all love to see him out there on the field. He’s come a long way and hopefully he’ll get even better over the next week and we’ll see him against San Diego State,” Green said. “I’m going to make darn sure that ankle is ready because I don’t want to risk getting him hurt again.”
Simply being able to suit up and participate in practice has been uplifting for Britton, who was worried he might have to watch from the sidelines for the rest of the season. Getting into the final game of his college career would be a really triumphant moment.
“I love playing football so it would be nice to get out there one more time,” Britton said. “If they need me, I’m ready.”