The Redskins' outside linebacker and special teams enforcer experienced his first major injury last December, but is in a much better head space this spring.*
Houston Bates remembers the small but sharp pain he felt last December, when a trio of Carolina Panthers players collapsed onto him during a kickoff in the Redskins' Monday Night Football matchup.
The outside linebacker thought he could fight their triple-team, dropped his foot back to anchor himself and, in his language, "it just went." In medical language, his left anterior cruciate ligament had snapped, though Bates didn't seem aware of just how bad his injury was.
Check out images from the Washington Redskins' defense and special teams during their sixth day of Phase 2 offseason workouts at the Inova Sports Performance Center at Redskins Park in Loudoun County, Va.
"I think my adrenaline was running so much that I felt it for sure, but I didn't know the severity of it," Bates said. "I didn't want to go out of the game or be injured so I was trying to push through it and fight through it as much as I could. They took my helmet away and told me not to go back in. Probably smart."
That set into motion a few weeks of prehab to reduce swelling, then surgery with Dr. James Andrews in Florida, then months of recovery, rehabbing and strengthening his knee and quad. It was the first major injury in Bates' football career.
"Mentally it takes a toll," Bates said. "It was the lowest I'd ever been. Going through an injury, not being able to be out there with the guys, watching on TV, it was pretty challenging to get through. Just trusting the process, that's helping me out the most. This is going to take time, you have to have patience, trust in the process, take it day by day and know you're going to be back to your normal self."
In the more than four months since his surgery, Bates has done a 180 mentally, enjoying the camaraderie with teammates back in the building after spending the winter in Louisiana. There, he worked with a doctor he's known since high school that specializes in knee injuries who initiated the recovery process. He also continued his outdoor hobbies there as best he could, which included bow fishing (it requires bow and arrow at night with bright lights, but allowed Bates to be stationary in a brace locked up against the boat).
In the month he's been in Ashburn, Bates has worked on a variety of routines with team trainers, focusing specifically on his quadriceps muscle, which shuts down when the ACL is torn. The muscle is still loose and flabby, and Bates' goal for the next couple of months is to get it back into firm shape.
That will prevent him from participating in OTAs over the next month – he'll work on side fields instead – and give him greater incentive to get back to the field. No timetable is set for his return just yet, but he's hoping it's as soon as possible.
"It's another piece of adversity. It's a wakeup call," Bates said. "One, you realize what has been taken away from you, what you love so much and you don't realize it until it's been taken away that 'Wow, I love this game, being around the guys, and the camaraderie.' Two, it makes you stronger. Everyone told me that you will come back stronger than you were and I didn't believe them at the time but now I got some momentum built up and I'm feeling stronger, mentality for sure. I will be back stronger, no doubt. I have a goal in mind and a little adversity that makes you or breaks you, it's going to make me."
Bates has teammates that act as case studies for his condition. He spoke with last year's veteran cornerback Greg Toler, who suffered two ACL injuries in his career, and received encouragement from safety Will Blackmon. The entire process has taught him about patience and humbled him.
"[Blackmon] was like 'You're going to be back, don't worry about it. I know it seems far away but you will be back,'" Bates said. "And that was comforting."
Bates finished his second season making an impact on special teams. He appeared on 292 special teams snaps, recording seven tackles, and contributed in a small role on defense, adding seven more tackles.
His injury followed those of Kedric Golston, Niles Paul and Anthony Lanier II, other reliable special teams players, but he hopes he can prove his worth once again and take the reins of the unit in 2017.
"I want to be the captain. I am shooting for that every year. I want to lead those guys," Bates said. "I think I am a great leader. I do everything right, on and off the field. Someone has got to take the flag and lead the group. If you have credibility and you think you do everything right then I think you should get the privilege to lead the group. That's my goal, but I got to get healthy first and lead by example. That's my goal this year, spearhead that unity. Hopefully we will be one of the best units in the league this year."