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It's Good to Be Back

Jan 5 2018
Photo by
Jason Getz/USA TODAY Sports
Photo by
Jason Getz/USA TODAY Sports
Jan 5 2018

I started my first playoff game at the Georgia Dome.

I finished it on my living room couch.

It was the divisional round last season against the Seahawks. It was my sixth year in the league, and I was finally playing in my first playoff game. The Georgia Dome was loud, too. Guys had always told me that playoff games are different — you know, do-or-die, every play matters, all that stuff. But whenever they would tell me that the atmosphere was crazy — like the crowd was louder — I didn’t really buy it. I was like, How are people just gonna be louder all of a sudden?

Well, they were. I mean, if you ever went to a game at the Dome, you know how loud it could get.

But for that Seahawks game … I had never heard it like that.

So I was amped up. I was really just getting back to being healthy after missing a few games with a torn MCL and meniscus, and I was finally ready to go.

Then, on like the fifth play of the game, I beat the tackle to the edge and was about to sack Russell Wilson. He stepped up in the pocket to run, and just as I reached my left arm out to grab him the tackle pushed me in the back.

I think the push is what did it.

My left elbow hyperextended, and my bicep basically popped off the bone.

I went to the sidelines, then to the locker room. The doctors checked me out, confirmed that my bicep was torn and my season was over, and then … I was so pissed that I didn’t even go back to the sidelines, like most guys do after an injury. I didn’t want to stick around, and I didn’t want to go to the hospital. I was so upset that I didn’t know what to do, so I just packed up my bag, got in my car and drove home.

Actually, my wife drove. I was in the passenger seat when my agent called and tried to calm me down. But I wasn’t hearing it, man. I was just thinking, Why is this happening to me?

I was mad at the world.

I got home in time to catch the end of the game on TV. I sat on my couch in the dark and watched my teammates celebrate their win over the Seahawks. They were headed to the NFC championship game.

Me?

I was headed for rehab.

I had been down that road before — a torn ACL, MCL and meniscus in 2012; a torn right bicep in 2014; the torn MCL and meniscus in 2016. And let me tell you something: Rehab sucks. I didn’t think I wanted to go through that again. I decided I’d rather just hang it up.

I was ready to retire.

Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire

It’s really not like me to think that way, honestly. I don’t know why I was so mad. Maybe I just felt unlucky, like I wasn’t in control.

But still, it’s not like me to give up like that, or to just … not fight. You know? I mean, I had already overcome more than just a few major injuries. I probably shouldn’t have been playing football in the first place.

At least that’s what doctors said when I was a kid.

I was born with something called Erb’s palsy. The best way I can explain it is that when I was born the doctor had to pull me out by my neck. In the process I suffered nerve damage on the right side of my body — basically in my neck, trap and bicep. So I’ve always had limitations in my right arm as far as strength and mobility.

Even today I have to lift different dumbbells when I’m doing curls or shoulder raises or whatever, because my right arm just isn’t as strong as my left. I wouldn’t say it’s night and day, but it’s a big difference. My right arm is also a little smaller than my left, and I can’t fully extend it — like, I can’t lock my right elbow so my arm is completely straight.

So all throughout my childhood, as far back as I can remember, I was doing physical therapy to strengthen my right arm.

I think I started to realize that there was something different about me when I was in elementary school and kids started making fun of my small arm.

Now, I don’t want to make this about me being a victim or anything like that. There are a lot of kids who had it worse than I did when it came to to being picked on or made fun of. I was lucky because I was always a big kid, and so nobody messed with me too much.

And there are varying degrees of Erb’s palsy, too. So there are a lot of people who have even greater limitations than I do.

I don’t know where my Erb’s palsy ranks as far as how severe it is, but I know that it was at least bad enough to where some doctors told my mom that I shouldn’t play football.

It wasn’t until middle school that I told my mom I didn’t care what the doctors said. I wanted to play. I had played football in the street with my friends — and I had played all kinds of other sports, too — and my arm was fine. I had always found ways to adjust and work around my limitations.

Andrew Weber/USA TODAY Sports

I know my mom didn’t want me to play football … but she let me play anyway.

And I think more than anything it was because she wanted to keep me off the streets.

See, we lived on the south side of St. Louis. We had moved there from the north side a few years earlier after my oldest brother, Anthony, was killed on the streets.

I was 10 years old when he died, so I don’t remember a whole lot about it. I just remember that it was a school night and I was asleep when my mom came in all frantic and woke me and my older brother and sister up and told us she was taking us to our grandma’s house.

The whole drive, she didn’t say anything. But when we got to our grandma’s she sat us all down and told us that Anthony had been shot and killed. He was caught up in the street life, and he had been out that night with some of his friends when somebody murdered him in an alleyway — took his money and his shoes and just left him there.

That’s about all I’m gonna say about that. To be honest, I really just don’t want to relive it all. It was just … hard, man — losing my brother, and being 10 years old and not understanding why. It forced me to grow up fast, and it made my mom promise herself that she was never going to lose another one of her kids to the streets. So she moved us about 20 minutes away, to the south side of town, and she basically put me and my older brother and sister on lockdown. We weren’t even allowed out of the house after dark. My mom put me in baseball and basketball just to keep me busy.

So when I came to her and told her I wanted to play football, I’m pretty sure she didn’t care that some doctors had said I shouldn’t play.

It was still safer than me being out on the streets.

I never went into football dreaming of making it to the NFL or anything. I just wanted to play because I loved playing in the yard with other kids. My mom had never let me play little league, and I wanted to play real football. I wanted to have fun.

I was about six feet tall and over 200 pounds when I joined my eighth-grade football team, so I was pretty big.

I was pretty good, too.

And I guess the rest is history. I chose to play college football at Iowa, and spent five amazing years there before the Bucs drafted me with the 20th pick in 2011. I spent four years battling injuries and dealing with coaching changes in Tampa before becoming a free agent in 2015.

So yeah, I had overcome a few things in my life and my career. Erb’s palsy. Losing my brother. A handful of pretty serious injuries.

But none of that really mattered to me when I was sitting on my couch with a torn left bicep, watching my teammates celebrate on TV. I was just mad. I was happy for them, but I just honestly didn’t feel like I had it in me to work my way back from another injury.

I was in the dumps for about a month. I was on the sidelines with my arm in a brace for the Super Bowl, just trying to be there for my teammates and to help out however I could.

Now, we all know what happened in the second half of that game. When it was over, I just remember thinking that we’d had a lot of opportunities and were just one big play away from getting the win. And I wondered, Damn, what if I could have been the one to make that play … to have been the difference in the game?

That put me even further in the dumps — thinking that maybe my teammates needed me, but I just wasn’t there for them.

I wondered, Damn, what if I could have been the one to make that play … to have been the difference in the game?

I felt that way for about another week or so after the Super Bowl. I don’t think my outlook really turned until I finally got that stupid brace off my arm and was actually able to start rehabbing.

Actually, I gotta give a shout-out to everybody back at the University of Iowa right here. When I was back in college in Iowa City, the coaches and the staff really taught me about hard work and discipline. I know it’s cliché, but the things I learned there have always helped me keep my head down and keep working hard to push through injuries. That’s what the Iowa program is all about: hard work.

And I thought a lot about all that once that brace came off my arm. Because of that Iowa mentality — along with a lot of prayer and talks with my wife, Shannon, and just reflecting — I decided that it wasn’t time for me to hang it up just yet. I had to try to come back.

And I’m glad I did.

I mean, this year with this team has just been a lot of fun. I know I’ve felt great. I had a career-high 9½ sacks this season — six of them in one game against the Cowboys.

Now that was a crazy week. I was getting a lot of media requests. And one thing about me is that I’m kind of laid back — I don’t really like being the center of attention. So it was a little uncomfortable for me because it felt like everybody was talking about me that week.

Don’t get me wrong, it was fun to follow all the stuff on social media — there was one meme where somebody put the Crying Jordan face on Dak Prescott … I thought that was pretty funny.

That’s how you know things are getting crazy, right? Like, when you get meme’d, or you do something that has people making memes, that means a lot of people are talking about you.

So yeah, it was kind of fun. But really, I just couldn’t wait for the next game so people would move on and forget about me again. Haha.

I don’t know, man. I’m just glad that I didn’t retire. I’m happy to be back. Happy to be here in Atlanta. Happy to be in the playoffs. This time, I can hopefully contribute to my team and help my brothers finish what we started.

You know, we try not to get too far ahead of ourselves. So we’re honestly not thinking about getting back to the Super Bowl. We’re just taking it one game at a time and trying to make plays when we can and play winning football. That’s all you can do.

And as long as I don’t finish the season sitting on my couch, I think I’ll be good.