William and Mary linebacker Nate Atkins played hurt last season — so much so that he had not one, not two, but three operations in the offseason.
But the Hidden Valley High School graduate still started every game for the Tribe last year, and led the team in tackles for the second straight season.
“I felt like my team was counting on me,” he said Wednesday in a phone interview. “I take a lot of pride in being able to go out there and swallow the pain and do what I need to do to lead the team as much as I can, regardless of the circumstances.
“I have a really strong support network, too. My family was huge. I lean on them and my faith.”
After missing spring practice to rehab from shoulder, abdmominal and knee operations, the fifth-year senior was back in the starting lineup for the Tribe’s season-opening win over Lafayette last weekend.
“We got it all corrected this offseason. I feel really good right now,” said Atkins, who had three tackles in the victory.
FCS member William and Mary will step up in weight class to take on Virginia on Friday.
Atkins, who got a chance to play against Virginia Tech last year, will be facing UVa for the second time in his career. He had 12 tackles and one sack in a 28-10 loss at Virginia two years ago.
“I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t something special about getting to play in front of such a big crowd compared to what we’re used to,” he said. “Going back closer to home is always fun, too.”
‘Couldn’t catch a break’
Atkins played middle linebacker for Hidden Valley. He was a two-time All-Timesland first-team pick, and helped the Titans make the state quarterfinals as a junior.
He has started every game for the Tribe since the 2016 opener, when he was a redshirt freshman.
Atkins recorded 96 tackles in 2017, earning All-Colonial Athletic Association third-team honors.
He suffered a torn labrum in his left shoulder during that season. But he never missed a game in 2017 or 2018, though, even though his shoulder got “worse and worse and worse.”
Atkins suffered a bilateral core injury — what is commonly known as a sports hernia — in the summer of 2018.
“I thought it was just, ‘Oh, my abs are really sore, I don’t know why,’ and then quickly realized something was not right,” he said.
In preseason practice last August, he tore the meniscus in his left knee.
“It was kind of just one thing after another. I couldn’t catch a break,” he said.
Nevertheless, Atkins had a team-high 68 tackles last year. He started all 10 games.
“I wasn’t very happy with how I performed,” he said. “[But] even if physically I wasn’t as able to perform what I needed to do, I at least was able to know where I was supposed to be. I’ve had so many reps in games, I see things quickly and I’m able to get myself in the right spot to make the play.”
He underwent shoulder surgery last December. He had surgery to repair his groin and lower abdominal muscles in January. He underwent knee surgery in March.
“There were … periods where I was in there for two hours doing rehab on all three injuries, which was definitely a drag,” he said.
Atkins is playing for a new head coach this year. Mike London has succeeded Tribe coaching legend Jimmye Laycock, who retired after last season.
“A good change,” Atkins said. “It’s been cool for me, especially, going from Coach Laycock — he was more of an offensive mind — to now Coach London, who’s so involved and hands-on with the defense.”
Atkins was the middle linebacker in the Tribe’s 4-3 defense the past three years. London has switched the Tribe to a 3-4 set, so Atkins is one of two inside linebackers in the new scheme.
“The other inside linebacker a lot of the time will end up removing himself from the box, so there are a lot of times where I end up as the only guy. So I still get to feel a little special,” he said.
And for the second straight year, Atkins is more than just a linebacker.
Despite being a junior, Atkins was elected one of the Tribe’s tri-captains for the 2018 season in a team-wide vote. The other two captains were seniors.
Earlier this year, he was elected one of the team’s four captains for this season — making him only the 12th player in the program’s 126-year history to be a captain for multiple seasons.
“It’s definitely an honor, just getting the reassurance that I didn’t screw it up too bad last year,” Atkins said with a laugh. “It shows me that the guys respect who I am and what I’m about and my approach to the game.”
He has already impressed his new coach.
“He’s our leader when it comes to the [defensive] calls out there on the field, and off the field in terms of getting the attention of the players,” London said. “He’s very mature for a young man. … He does well in the classroom.
“Our players respect him because they see a guy that’s overcome adversity physically with his body and then still maintain a level of high optimism.
“He’s one of our best players. He’s one of our best leaders.”
Atkins graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in business analytics. He is now enrolled in a one-year master’s degree program, also in business analytics.
He wants to become a college coach, so he hopes the analytics part of his studies will be of use.
“My parents tease me that I’m wasting my degree on going into coaching,” Atkins said.
But for now, he is still a college player.
“Every year, it does become a little bit more of a grind,” he said. “But at the same time, the grind increases and so does the reward.”