On the first play of the first game of the 2017 preseason.. nah, scratch that, it was the kickoff of the first game of the of the 2017 preseason, and Miami Dolphins linebacker Raekwon McMillan was sitting on the turf, staring at his right knee.
“Man, this is crazy,” he thought. “This is the first time I'm touching the field, period, and I'm hurt.”
Yes, it was crazy.
McMillan was a prize second-round pick in the NFL draft last Spring, and had progressed through organized team activities (OTAs) to the point that he had already been named the starting middle linebacker for the team, the position that called out the formations and plays for the defense on the field.
A leader by nature, McMillan had made his name roving the middle of Urban Meyer’s Ohio State Buckeye defense, winning a national championship along the way. He carried himself in such a way that if was obvious to anyone he encountered that leadership was second nature to him.
"It all comes with confidence and knowing what I'm doing,” says McMillan. “Being able to tell guys what they're doing around me, and when they ask, have a definite answer. Not like 'Oh, I don't know. Let me go ask coach.' When they come to me as the Mike linebacker, I need to know. A leader isn't just a title that you get because you're the Mike linebacker. Leader is a title that you get because you put in the work, day in and day out during the offseason, and leading up until now."
And yet, there he was, sitting on the field while medical personnel attended to his knee. The next day, it was confirmed: torn ACL, and he’d be placed on injured reserve, ending his rookie season before it even started.
"It was hard at first; but then I kind of sucked it up and told myself that I could either let this year be a waste, or prepare myself for next year, because I know next year there is going to be a role to start.”
McMillan found himself frustrated with the slow, never-ending rehab process. “That's the hardest part is just the daily grind … just getting back, just baby steps. Not walking one day and then walking the next. It was taking one step today, taking two steps the next day and then eventually getting to full speed.”
But he was wasn’t alone in his recovery. Another leader on the team, a guy named Ryan Tannehill, was also going through the same process after re-tearing his left ACL during a preseason scrimmage.
"We got our surgery on the same exact day,” says McMillan. "We got back here on the same day and we started rehab the same exact day.”
The competitive fire within both players pushed them to a friendly competition.
“From Day One, it was always a competition,” McMillan laughed. “Who could walk without their crutches first? Who could run full-speed under water first? It was just little stuff. Who can get a bigger quad muscle? It was just really stupid stuff like that to keep competing with each other. Also, Isaiah Ford was in that competition with us, even though he had a smaller injury. We all kept the light on each other."
That friendly ribbing helped McMillan get through the tough days, and he credits Tannehill for being there with him along the way.
“(Tannehill) always kept me up. Some days I wasn't feeling too good, and I just couldn't do what I wanted to do. He always kept me positive and kept my mind right, because he had went through it last year."
And who ‘won’ the competition?
"I won,” laughs McMillan. “I mean, I don't know. Tannehill progressed a little bit faster than me because he just knew what the deal was with his knee. He wasn't scared of the aches and pains that come with it. He moved along and helped me move along, as well."
While admitting that he was scared of the aches and pains, McMillan knew he’d gotten the surgery for a reason, and he’s now running around with no pain, to the point that he says he doesn’t even think about the knee during drills. Tanehill and running back Frank Gore, who has had some knee injuries of his own during his career, advised him that when he’s out there on the field, the knee needs to be the last thing on his mind.
“My knee feels good, he says. “I'm out there doing everything at practice, no limitations, so I'm out there flying around.
“It feels good to be back.”
This story was written by Eldon Jenson. Follow him on Twitter @EJFootball
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