He hasn’t played a football game in 538 days, and he hasn't been healthy since well before that.
Last time Mack Hollins wasn’t dealing with nagging groin pain, the Eagles had never won a Super Bowl, Nick Foles wasn’t yet a living legend and the wide receivers coach the Eagles fired a few months ago hadn’t been hired yet.
It’s been a while.
It’s been a difficult 18 months for Hollins, a roller-coaster of progress and setbacks, encouraging steps forward and crushing disappointment.
Hollins, the Eagles’ third-year fourth-round receiver out of North Carolina, is back at practice, he’s healthy and his year-and-a-half nightmare appears over.
It’s been rough, it has been,” Hollins said Friday in his first interview since late in the 2018 preseason. "You’re a competitor. You grew up all your life playing football, and now you can’t play and you can’t be out there? That’s rough. I think I learned a lot from it. You can always get something out of it,. At the beginning it’s, ‘Why am I hurt,’ but being on the side and getting the coach’s view, how things work, how plays are run, seeing the bigger view? You try to learn something from it. But that gets old quickly.
This hasn’t been a normal injury where you get hurt, you rehab, you come back.
Hollins had sports hernia surgery after the Super Bowl, played in the preseason opener against the Steelers in early August, then two days before the regular-season opener against the Falcons pronounced himself healthy and ready to play.
The next day he went on IR, and he didn’t play a snap all year.
Hollins’ injury has been shrouded in mystery, since the Eagles don’t make their trainers or doctors available for interviews, Doug Pederson doesn’t discuss injuries and Hollins hasn’t been available.
When did Hollins originally get hurt? He doesn’t even know. Sometime during the 2017 season.
“My whole rookie year is a blur,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t even remember. At some point it was sore and it just gradually got worse. When you’re winning, you could have a broken leg, you just keep going on.”
There were points where Hollins made enough progress that he thought he could come back.
Then he’d have a setback.
I would have really good days and then I would have bad days,” he said. “There’s just so much going on in the area, and you’re trying to figure out what’s good, what’s not, what hurts it, what doesn’t, what we have to stay away from, what I can’t do. I could just never totally get back. It was a lingering thing that was always there and it would go on and off and I would fight through it, but it got back to the point where it’s more damaging than good and we just shut it down.
As tough as it was physically for Hollins, the mental strain was just as difficult.
He was in meetings, he was on the sideline for games, but he just didn’t feel like a part of things.
“You’re an outsider,” he said. “You’re in the clan, you’re in the brotherhood, but you’re really not. You’re like a soldier who’s no longer with his unit.”
You’re a Philadelphia Eagle. But you’re not.
“I could sit next to those guys in this locker room, sit next to these guys all year, if you’re not playing you can’t relate,” he said. “It’s just not the same. That’s the hardest thing. It’s tough, for sure. And it’s so good to be back out there and be able to joke with them and not get all the cracks from the other guys, ‘Man, you’re not at practice, you don’t know.’ You don’t have that same connection when you're hurt. The day I came back, you’re right back in it. It’s an immediate thing. It’s good to be back and feeling that.”
Hollins caught 16 passes for 226 yards in 2017, plus one nine-yard catch in the postseason.
He made his biggest impact on special teams, where he played 231 snaps, fifth-most on the team.
But a lot has changed since Hollins last played football.
The Eagles signed DeSean Jackson and drafted JJ Arcega-Whiteside in the second round.
Now, instead of being the No. 4 receiver behind Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor and Torrey Smith, he’s at best No. 5.
He’s no lock to make the team, and he knows it.
And he's not losing any sleep over it.
If I catch balls, I’ll either end up here or one of the 31 other teams, that’s what coach always preaches,” he said. “Obviously, I’d love to be here. I’d love to spend my whole career here, but that’s the business. But I know if I do what I have to do and take care of business, I’ll be here.
I have no idea what’s going to happen next, but I do know Hollins is a smarter player than he was before he got hurt, and he says he’s a better player, too.
Now he has a chance to prove it. Finally.
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