PHOENIX -- Seated on a bench in the cafeteria at Athletes' Performance in Arizona, Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus was attempting to recount how all of this sudden success happened, how he so quickly morphed into a pass-rushing terror.
"I think the tipping point that really set it off was me losing the tip of my finger," Mercilus said. "At any given moment, anything ..."
I have no idea what else Mercilus said. Focus strayed in the 15 seconds that followed, as my eyes were awkwardly attempting to get a glimpse of his hand. Was he serious? Was he really missing part of his finger? Very mature, I know. But also very true.
"Yeah, yeah, oh yeah," Mercilus laughed when I finally interrupted him to ask. "I was screaming the whole time. It freaked me out. The adrenaline was running. That was the tipping point for me to be in the right mindset to break out this year."
Mercilus is now perfectly comfortable discussing the gruesome injury that's less than a year old -- maybe because he believes it helped morph his mindset in a way that led to a NCAA-high 16 sacks. Whatever the reason, it's crazy stuff.
"It was the last week of spring ball," Mercilus said. "It was a weightlifting accident. A teammate was squatting 405 pounds, and he went down too low. He tried to come back up. I ran over to help him, and I tried to give him an assist."
But rather than reaching for the bar, Mercilus made a mistake: His hand instinctively went toward the weight plates between the bar and the rack. The bar came down fast -- too fast -- severing his left index finger at the first knuckle.
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"The finger was just sitting there, just chilling there," Mercilus said. "I was just like, 'Oh my gosh, I'm actually looking at the inside of my body right now. I'm looking at my bone.' Which actually really is pure white, by the way."
The tip of his finger (fingernail and all) was too damaged to reattach (credit to the strength coach who peeled it off the bar). Doctors instead used it for skin grafts to cover the open wound on the top of Mercilus' hand. It took more than a month before Mercilus could lift or train again. But when he returned, it was on.
"I never had the mindset of just being a dog out there," Mercilus said. "In my two previous seasons, I was timid. I played slow. The accident changed my mentality. After this happened, that's how I thought about it."
He put more work into his summer training than at any other point in his life. He started playing with a more reckless, tough-nosed mindset. And the results were obvious: In 2010, he started two games and had one sack. In 2011? A totally different story. He led the nation in sacks and forced fumbles. (His nine forced fumbles were also the second most in NCAA history.) In just one season, he was a force at a position that matters so incredibly much to NFL teams.
So, was it all because of a lost fingertip? Probably not, even if Mercilus is very serious when he says it changed his level of focus. Mercilus' motivation likely goes deep into his past. All along, he had it within him. He just had to dig it out.
"I had the tools, but I wasn't able to put it together," Mercilus said. "In spring ball (of 2011), something just clicked for me."
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His work ethic should nonetheless not come as a surprise. Mercilus comes from a set of parents who immigrated to the United States from Haiti shortly before he was born. His mother and father have held at least two jobs each ever since, working as caretakers for the elderly. It's another major factor in Mercilus' motivation to succeed in this week's NFL Scouting Combine. He'll now have a prime opportunity to provide for a family that made huge sacrifices for him.
"I don't think any of us can wrap our head around what kind of financial gain we're about to have," Mercilus said. "When it happens, you can't be stupid. It's a blessing. You just have to be smart with it. But it's going to help out my whole family."
A projected first-round selection, Mercilus has this last season to thank for the future ahead of him. His stock skyrocketed. His abilities shined. And his mentality changed in a way that made him the type of high-motor player coveted by general managers.
Last year, Mercilus might have lost the tip of his finger, but he gained something else that has resonated with him ever since.
"It changed how I thought about football," Mercilus said. "Don't just go through the motions. Use all of your ability to the fullest potential that you can. Nothing is promised. Anything can happen.
"You just need to be able to live life to the fullest every single day."