In fact, after a stellar freshman season for the Tigers in 2018, Ross looked like a surefire candidate to eventually be picked in the first round. However, he was diagnosed in 2020 with a rare spinal disorder and underwent neck surgery. After sitting out Clemson’s season that year, Ross returned in 2021, only to suffer a stress fracture in his left foot that led to a surgical procedure in November.
Even with the foot injury, though, Ross played in 10 games last season, and he was able to lead the Tigers with 46 catches for 514 yards and three touchdowns. Ross sat out most of the events at the NFL combine in February as he recovered from surgery, but he participated in Clemson’s pro day in March. He posted subpar numbers in standard measurements such as the 40-yard dash and the vertical and broad jumps, but an ESPN analyst in attendance felt the 6-foot-3, 210-pounder looked “very good” in position drills.
“I wanted to just show that I am healthy and that I can move around and play inside and outside receiver,” Ross said at the time. “I feel like I went out there and took care of business. I felt like I did well.”
The combination of his injuries and pre-draft testing results meant Ross no longer had much of a shot at going high in the draft, but his rankings on several big boards suggested he might get picked as early as the fourth round.
Instead, Ross spent the weekend never hearing his name called. At one point late in the proceedings Saturday, he retweeted a Clemson-oriented account’s post that declared, “Seeing some of the WRs going while Ross is still on board just doesn’t feel real.”
When the draft wrapped up Saturday evening, NFL teams immediately went to work snapping up undrafted free agents, but Sunday evening arrived with no word that Ross was among the signings. By then, one personal coach who worked with Ross and other aspiring wide receivers tweeted that teams were “regretting” having passed in 2019 on DK Metcalf, who came into the draft with a history of neck and foot issues, and would do the same with Ross.
The surgeon who reportedly performed Ross’s 2020 neck procedure, David Okonkwo of the University of Pittsburgh’s Neurotrauma Clinical Trials Center, did not immediately respond Sunday to an emailed request for comment. In April, before the draft, he told ESPN that the type of procedure involved was a “very common” one in general but “virtually unique” for someone diagnosed with Klippel-Feil syndrome, as was the case with Ross. Klippel-Feil is a congenital syndrome in which two neck vertebrae are abnormally fused, per the National Institutes of Health.
“Justyn has a condition that is very rare, and to my knowledge, there is no precedent of another high-level American football player with this condition playing football,” said Okonkwo, who is also the team neurosurgeon for the Pittsburgh Steelers. “So we were paving new road as we went through the process.”
“Once a team gets me, they’re going to get everything out of me,” Ross said then to ESPN. “I’m still that same player everybody knows.”
Ross’s 2018 season wasn’t wildly impressive just because he was an 18-year-old freshman excelling against mostly older and more experienced opponents. He also posted the top receiving yardage on a Clemson pass-catching corps that featured three future NFL players: Tee Higgins, Hunter Renfrow and Amari Rodgers. Ross’s 21.7 yards-per-catch average set a program single-season record for players with at least 20 receptions, and he posted a combined 12 catches for 301 yards and three touchdowns in two College Football Playoff games as Clemson won the national title.
The following season saw Ross lead Clemson with 66 receptions before the discovery of his neck issue caused him to miss the 2020 campaign. His willingness to play through a hairline fracture in his foot last season prompted Coach Dabo Swinney to describe the wide receiver’s toughness as “second to none.”
“It’s amazing what he’s been able to do,” Swinney said in April. “What he’s put on tape [for NFL scouts] kind of put their fears to rest.”
That may not be the case, to judge from Ross’s inability thus far to land an NFL job.
“Just need dat 1 chance,” he tweeted during the draft.