BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech running back Tahj Gary was on crutches when he met Hendon Hooker for the first time last year.
Gary visited Blacksburg shortly after his senior season at Woodward Academy (Ga.) was cut short by a femur injury that left his leg dangling from his body. He was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery a month before he was set to sign his national letter of intent.
That meeting was on Hooker’s mind Saturday night when he handed the ball off to Gary in the final minutes of Tech’s 34-17 win over Rhode Island.
“I was really excited for him to get in and get to showcase his talent today,” Hooker said.
Gary, who picked Tech from a list of 30-plus scholarship offers, had a modest 3-yard gain on his first carry at Rhode Island’s 20-yard line, but he bounced it the outside around the left side of the line on second down for what looked like a 17-yard touchdown.
The officials reviewed the score and placed the ball at the 1-yard line, but it was still a special moment for a young running back Justin Fuente thought had little chance of seeing the field as a true freshman when he signed back in December.
“I would have never even considered that on signing day that we would have discussions about him playing in a game,” Fuente said.
Fuente told Gary as much when he visited him in December for a home visit.
“When the injury first happened, he didn’t say, ‘damn, how is he going to play football.’ He was just seeing if I was OK,” Gary said in an interview with The Roanoke Times before early signing day. “...Coach Fuente was just telling me even if I don’t play another down of football, your offer is still good with us and we are going to take care of you.”
Fuente credited the “miracle of modern medicine” and Gary’s perseverance for putting him in position to contribute this season.
Doctors initially told Gary he would need at least six months of rehab, but he knocked two months off that by spending more than three hours a day in the weight room.
“I marveled at what he was able to do in the summer and it has just continued to get more confidence and stronger throughout fall camp,” Fuente said. “Obviously we are cautious with him, but now we are ready to see if he can go and contribute.”
Gary, who ended up with four carries for 24 yards, brings a different skill set to Tech’s backfield.
The 5-foot-8, 221-pounder is more in the mold of former Hokies running back Steven Peoples, who measured in at 5-foot-9, 222-pounds as senior. Tech's starting running back Deshawn McClease is 190 pounds while Keshawn King is 182 pounds.
“He’s got size,” Fuente said of Gary. “It will be interesting to see how he continues to develop as the season goes along, but I do think it’s pretty remarkable.”