Rodney McLeod sat alone in the Eagles’ locker room on Sunday night and pondered his football future as tears rolled down his cheeks.
The Eagles’ starting safety had played every snap in nearly two years but in the third quarter of Sunday’s win over the Saints he suffered a knee injury. He initially hoped it was just a hyperextension but it was more serious. A torn ACL for the second time in three seasons.
Season over. Surgery coming. Rehab after.
The 30-year-old, in that moment, had a million things running through his mind as he spoke to his wife Erika on the phone, relaying all of his fears.
“It crushed me, man,” McLeod said to his co-host of The Rodney McLeod Hour, Jerrold Colton, on iHeart Radio’s Fox Sports the Gambler on Tuesday night.
“Everything that you put into this game and kind of where we were at this point in our season and what that game meant and how well we were playing at that point. I felt as though I let my teammates down, I let my team down by not being able to finish. And it hurt. Man, tears rolled down my eyes, I had a moment where I just reflected on it all, that game, my career, moving forward.
“What is this going to entail for Rodney McLeod moving forward? Do I have the strength to keep pushing forward and to endure everything that I experienced two years ago when I first went through my ACL? All of those thoughts are going through your head and of course your career. You’re at age 30, where does that place you post surgery and how are you going to be valued? What’s the narrative about you now? All these thoughts go through your head and you gotta just pour all of the emotions out. They have to come out.”
ACL surgeries used to end careers but we’ve come a long way since then. These days, we talk about ACL surgeries like going to the bank. But these are involved procedures with lengthy rehabs that test patients mentally as much as physically. There are no guarantees, especially for a player over 30, who hopes to be going into his 10th NFL season in 2021.
As his teammates were celebrating a 24-21 win they clinched without him, those were the thoughts that entered McLeod’s mind.
“It was a tough time in that moment,” he said.
But McLeod added that the text messages, posts and comments he received from friends, family and strangers helped uplift him. It gave him the encouragement he needed to get past that dark place quickly.
“I feel confident that I will be able to make a full and healthy recovery, which is encouraging for me,” McLeod said. “I know what it entails and I just have to prepare mentally for this next step.”
Before he can have surgery, the swelling in his knee will need to subside. But on Tuesday, McLeod was already back on an exercise bike, making sure to keep his range of motion. He said that will help when he gets to the other side.
The other side, of course, meaning the other side of surgery. Even with all of the strides in the medical field, recovering from an ACL tear and subsequent surgery is no easy task. A couple years ago, McLeod had to recover from an ACL and MCL surgery, so he knows what he’s in for soon.
“You really have to take yourself to a whole different place,” McLeod said. “And the ACL is a journey. You have to be appreciative of every single milestone that you’re able to conquer because there’s so many. There’s so many ups and downs throughout that rehab process and it will humble you every point, every moment.”
On Sunday night, McLeod didn’t initially think the injury was this serious. He felt pain after the non-contact injury but was able to jog off the field. He got checked out on the bench but before he went into the medical tent began to jog on the sideline.
Before the doctor looked at him, McLeod really thought he was going to get back in that game, perhaps wearing a knee brace. Instead, he faces surgery, rehab and an uncertain future.
The Eagles re-signed McLeod to a two-year deal this past offseason, so he’s under contract for 2021 with a manageable cap hit of $5.2 million for a good player who is a defensive captain.
Jim Schwartz on Tuesday pointed out that in 2018, even after McLeod’s first ACL surgery, McLeod was able to remain an important part of the team as a leader. In fact, it was McLeod who would give the pregame warmup speech to the defensive backs before every game that year. Schwartz expects McLeod to stay involved again.
That’s why it shouldn’t be too surprising that McLeod still went to his charity event on Monday night and showed up for his radio show on Tuesday. He had his dark moment already. Now it’s about what’s next.
“One of my best friends told me, ‘the story ends how you want it to’ and I really took that to heart,” McLeod said. “I have full control of this, it’s all in my hands, ball’s in my court. You make it what you want. I’m a fighter, man, I’m a warrior and that’s what I’m gonna do. That’s what it’s going to take for me to come back and get back to the level where I left off.”
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