I find the unknown in life more interesting than terrifying. You get to test yourself, you know what I mean? It’s not often that you get to build yourself back up when life kind of breaks you down. I don’t really know how to explain it, but I view adversity as a mission that I control based on my hard work and belief in myself.
For me, I always want clarity for the unanswered questions in life, even if asking the tough questions may result in difficult realities. I’m a planner. I’m disciplined. Even if I hear news that is tough to swallow, I want to create a plan, find the formula, and follow it to the other side.
About this time last year, I wanted to know what was going on with my back, even if the answers to my questions wouldn’t be positive. I wanted direction, and I found myself at a fork in the road; get surgery or don’t get surgery.
At the end of the day, I still reached my goal. I still made it to the NFL. My health is No. 1, so I could leave knowing I achieved a lifelong dream while continuing to live a healthy life.
I first started playing football as a third grader because that’s what my older brothers did. We were first-generation Americans living in Texas, and football in Texas is real football. Big boys, real talent, raw talent. By the time I was a sophomore at Allen High School, I joined the varsity team for their playoff run. That’s a pretty big deal at Allen, where we have a 20,000-seat stadium and won three state championships in a four-year span. I get into the first-round playoff game with the clean-up crew, and I’ll never forget this – I got absolutely pummeled. I got worked that game. The guys I was going up against were big, strong, physical. The game was freezing, and I barely got through it. I needed to make sure that would never happen again.
So, with fuel to be better, I developed a plan for myself.
I had my parents get me a gym membership, then I hit the weights hard. I trained a lot. I started getting better, and the first game of the next season, I saw massive improvement. That’s when I realized that I control how good I’m going to be. How much I worked directly related to how good I was, so it clicked for me. I had every ability to make it to the NFL if I worked hard, stayed disciplined and never took a day off.
When I got to college, I kept with the plan. Put in your time, put in your work and you’ll get to where you want to be. That formula worked out.
This is what you work for.
This is what you dream of.
People say it all the time, ‘You’ve got to work for what you want,’ and you kind of brush it off your whole life, but in my case, it came true. It just felt like everything was paying off for me. I got my degree from Washington, and I got drafted in the second round here to Detroit. I felt complete.
It’s about the third week of training camp my rookie year, and my body started hurting. The back started hurting. I previously had some back issues, but back issues are back issues. One out of five people in the League have a bulged disc or a herniated disc, it just depends on whether you feel it or not.
My rookie season was kind of a blur, but I wasn’t frustrated. My back was hurting, but my teammates were hurting. Everybody in the League has something, it’s just that some injuries are more severe than others. I was doing everything I could to get through the year. A lot of core. Treatment. Massages. Soft-tissue work. Cupping. Whatever it took.
This was still the dream. It was awesome to make my debut on Monday Night Football, and even better to get a sack on Thanksgiving. This is what you work for.
At the end of my rookie year, I was thankful that I just survived it. Seriously. I played 16 games, but not at the level I wanted. A part of me wondered, ‘Is this what the rest of my career will look like? I don’t want to play like this forever. I don’t want my back to feel like this forever.’ But again, I wasn’t upset about it. If I didn’t want to keep living like this, what’s my plan to change it? How can I create a solution for my problem? Back to the formula, back to staying disciplined, back to work.
Between Year 1 and Year 2, I went in on my rehab. I spent five months doing my part, and I returned for the spring of 2022 genuinely feeling good. I felt fresh. Sure, there were a few aches here and there, but everything felt strong enough.
But football, this is a real-ass game.
You don’t know anything until you put on the pads.
It was dull. It was sharp. It was both at the same time. All I felt was that marble piercing. Beaming pain.
Imagine closing your eyes and lying flat on your back in a dark room. Now, put a small marble between your lower back and the floor. Gravity is pulling your weight down, and the darkness eliminates distractions, focusing the attention on the marble lodged between your lower back and the floor.
It was dull. It was sharp. It was both at the same time. All I felt was that marble piercing. Beaming pain.
Whenever I would fight pressure or put my hands on somebody, I would feel my back compress and I’d feel sharpness in that area. It was almost like knives in my back, but it was more debilitating than that. I felt a lot of weakness and I lacked stability. If I hit the wrong spot, the beaming pain would fire, and I would wince while trying to stabilize my body.
Healthy people will tell you that their body works together. When my back felt like that, it was like my upper body was separated from my lower body. They weren’t working
That very first day of pads, in either my first or second rep, I knew something was seriously wrong with my back.
I still don’t think there was one direct cause of my back issues in my football career. I think it was just repetitive hits over time, because that’s what it felt like. When I finally hurt it for real last summer, it just felt like a buildup. It was repeated pounding over the years.
Throughout my rookie season, the back pain gradually climbed, and I ended the year at a pain threshold of 7 out of 10. I seriously thought I entered Year 2 back at a 0, but that first or second rep in pads brought me back up to a 7. Starting off at a 7 immediately was an indicator that something was off, and trust me, the pain got up to a 10 that practice. The pain didn’t even gradually build up to that level, it just started there.
My recovery really changed my scope on what the mind can do, what hard work can do, what resiliency can do.
The results will come because of the process.
As athletes, we’re taught to fight through stuff, to fight through injuries. And there are certain things you should fight through. My back, I was of the mindset to just fight through it. That’s just how I’m cut, that’s how a lot of players are cut. We fight through a bunch of this stuff.
With how quickly my back spiked with pain, I knew it was a structural issue. I knew right away I probably wouldn’t play in 2022. I worked hard as hell the past five months rehabbing – that didn’t work – and after the first padded practice, I started rehabbing again. I only gave this round two weeks. Rehab is supposed to make you feel better, and through two weeks, I was not feeling better. I talked to Brad Holmes, I talked to my agent, and I knew I had to get something fixed structurally.
And in order to get myself better, I needed to get surgery. I did my research. A tight end a few years ago got the same surgery I was contemplating and came back, but other than that, I could not find another NFL player return to the game after getting the same surgery I was considering.
Scary? Not for me. I felt relief. ‘What’s wrong with my back, and how do I get truly better?’ My unanswered question was finally being addressed, and now it was time to make my plan.
I needed a spinal fusion in my L5-S1. It was pretty simple; the surgery could limit my flexibility and prevent me from playing football ever again. There are not a lot of guys who get this surgery and are able to come back to football. I had coaches tell me they had friends get this exact surgery and not be able to return to the game. I think it’s easier if you get this procedure in your neck. Some people get their cervical fused and they have a way better chance to play football. In my research, I didn’t see many players get what I got and come back. Most players get the microdiscectomy and they can come back easier, but that’s very different than a back fusion.
For me, the first and most important thing is to be able to live and carry on a healthy life. I want to be able to pick up my kids if I choose to have kids. I want to be able to do daily things that everybody gets to do at a healthy level.
If I didn’t get the surgery, life would look like another six months of rehab, see if we can control it, and see what happens the following year. I’d probably feel better with six months of rehab, but the structural issues would still exist, so would I have to deal with this exact situation all over again? Rehab would feel good but wouldn’t fix the problem. Was that really sustainable?
I didn’t wrestle with my choice.
I was content knowing that if the surgery didn’t allow me back onto the football field, at least I had my quality of life. On top of being content with that, I was going to do everything in my power to get back to playing football. When you have that mindset, it’s hard for things to go wrong. And regardless, if things did go wrong, I still made my dream happen. I had a lot to be thankful for.
The research said what the research said, but I knew who I was, and I knew how hard I was going to attack rehab. I knew how driven I was. I knew how hard I worked in the 2022 offseason before I got hurt. I knew how to create a plan and stay disciplined with it. If they’re able to restructure my back, it’s on me rehab-wise, working out-wise, working hard-wise, to get my back to the place it needs to be.
I just wanted a chance to live a productive life, both on-and-off the field. In my head, it was, ‘If I work hard, I’m going to be fine.’ At the end of the day, if I put my all into this rehab process for the next eight months, I should be fine. I just kind of took it on the head like that.
In the nicest way possible, one thing about this League – most guys don’t really care what people on the outside say about them. Some do, but most don’t. You’ve got to think about it like this – we’ve made our dream from age 6 come true. There are no words that can really touch us, there are no words that can really affect us.
At some point in 2022, Coach Campbell came up to me and said, ‘Just focus on us. Don’t worry about all the outside noise, don’t worry about what people are saying. Just focus on us.’ I was confused with what he was saying.
Then I searched my name on the internet, and I’m not going to lie, people said some funny shit. Man, some guy was like, ‘This guy’s back is done. GET HIM OUT OF HERE.’ There were some tweets and comments like that, so I’d send them to my friends, and we’d be laughing about it. It was fun in a way. Some people might be mad at that, but where I’m from, that’s funny stuff.
I never got in a dark place and it never got too deep. I was relieved that I was addressing a problem that needed fixing, and I was excited to get healthy. Sure, you’re rehabbing and you’re seeing your brothers play, you’re seeing Aaron Donald highlights, you’re like, ‘Damn, I want to be great like that. I hope my back gets fixed. I want to be great.’ But great things take time. I just kept reminding myself of that.
And there were some funny ways I kept tabs on my progress. These Detroit roads are terrible. All the bumps and whatnot? Terrible. The first month of my rehab post-surgery, I would be driving to the facility and felt every little bump. Tons of pain driving to the facility. In Month 2, it was a little less. In Month 3, there was little-to-no pain. I knew my back was getting better.
Over the first three months post-surgery, I was able to sit down for longer periods of time. That was progress. For those first three months, all I could do was take three walks per day, 20 minutes at a time. It wasn’t the most exciting plan, but I didn’t miss a day, didn’t miss a walk. I think positivity does a lot to help you recover, so I maintained that mindset.
The rehab did suck though. You’re in there every day doing the same stuff, but I switched my focus to, ‘I’m just coming in and getting a workout.’ I changed my mental approach to remind myself that all of the mundane, boring rehab would pay off.
The darkest it ever got was when I slipped at my house and fell down the stairs two months after my fusion surgery, which now thinking back on, I find pretty funny. There was no way my story ends with me slipping and falling. After I got up, I texted my doctor in a panic like, ‘Damn, did I just mess everything up?’ But the x-rays were good. My bone scan was fine. The metal and screws weren’t impacted by the fall.
A few other times, I’m texting the doctor, ‘Man, this doesn’t feel good.’ He’s firing back, ‘Calm down, it’s only Month 2. Discomfort is supposed to happen.’ To actually stop myself from worrying about my back too much, I screenshotted a text from the doctor that said, ‘It’s fine, relax.’ I made it my screensaver. Every time I’d look at my phone, it was a reminder that everything would be OK if I did my part.
As athletes, we want our injuries and surgeries to heal in two days. Unfortunately, that isn’t possible. I had to focus on patience and trust in the surgery during those moments.
One time, when I was praying, I did ask God, ‘Why me? Why is this going on?’ Then I remembered all of my blessings. I’m living in a first-world country. My dreams came true. There are seriously people in far worse situations than me, so I can’t be a ‘why-me’ person. I stopped with that attitude real quick. I listened to God. This was part of His plan, and I’d benefit from this.
You know that picture on the internet with the two guys chipping into a mountain trying to get the diamonds? I always knew I’d get to the diamonds, but there’s still days where you think like the guy who walks away and you’re kind of like, ‘I might not get there. My back isn’t feeling too good.’
The only thing is, I didn’t stop chipping. I let those doubtful thoughts just stay thoughts, and I moved forward.
The only thing I feared was going backwards. The body felt great in the spring of 2023, the surgery, the rehab, the plan – I felt it working. But those pads – man. At the end of the day, no matter how much rehab you do, it doesn’t really matter until you put on the pads, because the pads are a different animal.
This year’s first padded practice, sure, I felt the eyes on me just a little bit. My reps were fine, but I actually fell in the dumbest way possible in that practice. After practice, AG and the coaches are like, ‘We saw you fall, and we were just looking like are you going to get up?’ And I bounced up cool and it wasn’t an issue. Stuff like falling, taking a hit from the guys, striking – that told me that my back was ready.
The second thing I needed to see was, ‘How am I going to feel in the morning?’ My rookie year, that was an issue. I’d practice, then I’d feel like garbage. The next practice, I’d feel worse. By the time I got to the game, I’m feeling real bad. That was another indicator of my back’s health – how do I wake up feeling? Now, I’m feeling good to go. My body’s replenished and my back is revived the next day.
That first joint practice, I was kind of thinking about how my back would hold up. We did pod drills first – run-blocking work – and I felt flexibility and durability in my back. After I got those reps done, I was like, ‘Alright, I’m good. I’m not worried about it anymore.’
The process is what gets you better, and the process is the only way to get the results you want. The results are the reward.
Even though I’m a first-generation American in the NFL, I don’t view myself as the ‘American Dream.’ I’m not a success story yet.
No matter what you’re dealing with, or what you’re going through, the process is the most important part. The results will come because of the process. That’s the working out, that’s the rehab. That’s figuring out the right lyrics to a song, that’s swinging a bat 1,000 times, that’s juggling a soccer ball at practice. The process is what gets you better, and the process is the only way to get the results you want. The results are the reward.
My recovery really changed my scope on what the mind can do, what hard work can do, what resiliency can do. It’s kind of surreal. I had belief in my ability to accomplish certain things, but the positive results were statistically hard to attain.
My rebuild was 100% mental and 100% physical. You sprain your ankle? You can fight through it. You tear an ACL? You know you’ll be able to come back. People have done those.
Even though there are very few athletes who come back to contact sports after a lower-back spinal fusion, it helped me to learn that some athletes did return. I hope I can be a resource to people who have the same issue. Players who are in that same predicament as me can reach out to me. It would be cool to be that resource and be that person they talk to.
I think when you sulk, when you’re negative, when you listen to outside noise, when you get sad – while those emotions are human – you don’t want to sit there. When you stay in those spaces too much, it’s hard to truly focus on growth. To anybody who has the same issue as me, or issues like me, keep going.
Always have fun, be positive and enjoy the process. Life is too short to be stressing.
So, there’s really not a whole lot to it. I could sit here and say I worked hard and am really cool, but if you really think about it, the silver lining is like, ‘Damn, I just did something that is really hard to do.’
Welcome to the first installment of a new series of stories told through the voices of Detroit Lions players. Beyond the lights. Beyond the field.
Beyond the Game.