With 7:06 left in the game, Kanas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes threw a six-yard pass to second-year wide receiver Justyn Ross. To the casual fan, this pass was nothing out of the ordinary, just a quick pass for a short gain in a losing effort to the Detroit Lions. For Ross, his first career grab signified so much more for the receiver who, just a few years prior, was told his football career could be over.  

Who is Justyn Ross?

Growing up in  Phenix City, Alabama, Ross had a stellar career at Central High School, where he garnered national attention his senior year as one of the top 50 recruits in the nation. The four-star receiver had numerous offers from major programs like Alabama, Duke, and Clemson and would ultimately settle on Clemson after graduating In 2017. 

Death Valley 

Ross burst on the scene his freshman year at Clemson, racking up 1000 yards receiving and nine touchdowns. He had a solid Sophomore season in 2019, adding over 700 more yards, eight touchdowns, and a National Championship to his resume. In 2020, Ross looked like he would be a first-round NFL draft pick by the end of the season. However, a hit he sustained in practice would change everything.

When Ross was hit he felt numbness in both of his arms. Ross brushed it off as a stinger, a common football injury, but a follow-up from the team medical staff showed that he suffered from a condition known as Klippel-Feil syndrome, which is an abnormal fusion of two or more bones in the neck. The condition affects 1 out of 40,000 people and went undetected in Ross because he had never undergone a neck scan prior to the injury.

Doctors told him that this condition could end his football career. Most doctors recommend that people with KFS avoid contact to the neck due to the risk of paralyzation or possible death. After learning of his condition, Ross received opinions from Nuro scientists around the US, but none of them would clear him to play in his current condition.  Ross ultimately decided to have surgery to relieve the pressure on his spine.  He underwent successful surgery and months of rehab that strengthened the muscles around his neck. Before the 2021 season, Ross was cleared by doctors and returned to the team for Clemson’s first game against Georgia. When Ross was hit for the first time and bounced right back up, he knew that he was back. His return was short-lived. Ross would only play in ten games that season due to a stress fracture in his foot. Despite all the games he missed over his career, he ranked 5th in receiving touchdowns in program history by the time he declared for the NFL Draft in 2022. 

Prime Time 

Despite Ross’s strong performance in his ten games in 2021, he went undrafted in the 2022 draft, with most teams steering clear of him due to his medical history.  The Chiefs took a shot and signed him to a free-agent contract, but in 2022, injuries once again kept him from seeing the field. This year, during training camp, he reminded everyone why he was an expected first-round draft pick before his injury, making dynamic plays and building rapport with quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

“He’s obviously making big plays, and he’s getting more and more involved in those first-team reps. He’s a guy that I hope can be a really good player in this offense,” Quarterback Patrick Mahomes told reporters before the start of the season.

Ross impressed the staff enough to make the team’s 53-man roster and would be ready to make an impact this season. 

When he was asked about his expectations for the season, Ross said, “Just to take advantage of the opportunity. You never know what the future may bring, but right now, I’m just taking it day-by-day, step-by-step, really.” 

After Ross’s first NFL reception on Thursday, he was tackled on the play, something that would have terrified doctors a few years before. Ross, like he had done a thousand times before,  jumped up and got ready for the next play. With each setback he has faced in his journey to the NFL he got back up and kept going. Like Ross, we are all going to get hit by life. It is our decision whether we get up or not.