FINDING HIS FOOTING

He had never had surgery before. Never spent a night in a hospital. Never went under anesthesia. Heck, he’d never even broken a bone. Pretty much anything having to do with being sick or injured, Kevin Jones wanted no part of – and for the first 24 years of his life, he blissfully got his way.

But in one day, one play, the bliss was over.

And now he was experiencing it all.

“I was in the bed before my surgery, and the nurse was kind of nonchalant, ’cause I guess she does this all the time,” Jones said recently, sitting at the Lions’ training facility, still trying to come back from a major foot injury, “but I was like, ‘Come on, you got to be more caring.’ I mean, my underarms were sweating.

“And then they gave me this medicine to relax me, intravenously, and I remember the doctor saying, ‘We’re gonna take you into surgery’ or something. And then … I was gone. Next thing you know, it’s, ‘All right, Mr. Jones.’ And they lifted me and rolled me onto another bed, being real careful with my legs.

“And I was like – am I done already?”

With that, the hardest stretch of Kevin Jones’ athletic life had begun, and it is currently at nine months and counting, as he tries to come back from one of the worst setbacks in football, the Lisfranc injury, a tearing of the tissues that connect the bones in the middle of your foot.

Jones might be tempted to call his epic tale, “My Left Foot.” But in the use-’em-up-and-spit-’em-out world of pro football, the sentence he uttered when he woke up from surgery is probably a better title:

Am I Done Already?

He is determined to make sure he is not. His life was all about speed

Kevin Jones grew up a high school star in the struggling town of Chester, Pa., just south of Philadelphia, a place where William Penn once got off a ship and Bill Haley and the Comets once created something called “Rock Around the Clock.” For Jones, however, life was sports and speed. He was a freshman sensation in football and track and went on to be rated the best high school player in the nation by several scouting services.

He attended Virginia Tech as one of its most heavily recruited players ever, and he did enough in three years there to jump to the NFL.

The Lions, in 2004, made him their second pick in the first round of the draft. And his rookie season was so good, he was selected a Pro Bowl alternate, with more than 1,100 yards rushing.

In other words, the pattern for Kevin Jones was green light, green light, green light. How fast could he go?

And then, last December, on a Sunday afternoon at Ford Field, two weeks shy of Christmas Eve, Jones took a handoff and tried to smash his way into the end zone from the 1-yard line.

Bodies collided. Jones’ foot got stuck. He felt the worst pain he’d ever felt on a football field. And when a 280-pound Vikings lineman named Kenechi Udeze got off him, Jones didn’t move.

Red light.

His winter of discontent

“I was in bed for like 10 weeks, and I couldn’t do anything,” Jones said of the stretch immediately after the surgery. “Man, that was torture. I had never been in a situation like that. It was trying times.”

Jones, his feet dangling from a trainer’s table near the practice field, exhaled at the memory. Imagine being a professional speed artist, having run a 10.2 in the 100 meters – in high school! – and then suddenly being told no walking, exercising or pressure on the foot for two months? What do you do?

According to Jones, you lie in bed, you watch TV, you watch movies, you watch more TV, occasionally you move around on your crutches and try to pretend it’s a workout.

He spent Christmas that way. New Year’s Day. January. February. He stayed mostly inside his house in Canton, during the snowy months when NFL players head someplace warm to chill and enjoy their good fortune.

Meanwhile, under a giant cast, Jones’ muscles were atrophying. The wind his lungs had grown used to supplying was dissipating. In short, his professional athlete’s body, thanks to a forced shutdown, was slowly deflating, like a balloon with a tiny pinhole.

On top of that, Jones’ fiancée, Robyn Daniels, was pregnant. There was a wedding to plan. And he wasn’t a very good patient. “I was like a big baby at the time,” he said. “I was real needy. You know, you need to talk to somebody, you need to eat. I couldn’t really take a shower with the cast on. She had to bathe me at first. It was hard – and it was really hard on her.”

The cast was replaced with a boot. The crutches eventually were put down. In early March, as Jones still was trying to stand on one foot, he heard the news: The Lions had traded for Denver running back Tatum Bell, who had led his team in rushing the previous season.

“I was in disbelief …” Jones said. “They did what?

“But later that day, I thought about it, and I was like, well, I mean, I am hurt. …

Then, a week later, Jones heard the Lions had signed free-agent running back T.J. Duckett. That’s two men for his old position, he thought. He tried not to focus on the nagging conclusion: While he was struggling to walk, the Lions were making plans to run without him.

And then baby makes three

Jones dug in harder. He was determined to make it back to the team and to reclaim his job as starting running back. He was not yet 25, right? He had plenty of career left, right? He did not want to hear the demon that shouts in injured players’ ears: Am I done already?

The rehab intensified. He did resistance work with a trainer manipulating his foot. He tried balance exercises. He picked up marbles with his toes.

In April, while his teammates were doing off-season workouts and his bosses were combing the draft lists – possibly for another running back? – Kevin and Robyn welcomed their first baby into the world. They named him Kevin Jr.

Two days later, Daddy was under the knife again, having the screws removed from his foot.

And then he was back at it. From catching medicine balls one-footed, to doing underwater treadmills in a swimming pool, to finally doing above-ground treadmills and some weight work, Jones would not let up. He put in four to five hours a day of rehab. Calf raises. Stationary bikes.

“At first, when I saw the coaches coming past, I would straighten up, make sure I was walking right,” he admitted. “And then as soon as they passed, I went back to limping.”

Remember, this is a guy who had never really been injured before. Inside every young football player is a foolish belief that he will be the golden child, the untouched one, never anything more than an ankle twist or a slight hamstring, nothing that makes you wonder if you’ll ever be the same.

Suddenly, Jones was facing that question.

And then he walked down the aisle.

A time for rehab and romance

On July 7, in the Bahamas, Kevin and Robyn were married. Kevin was determined to walk upright for that auspicious moment, and to dance with his new bride – which he did. But when photographers wanted them to pose barefoot on some rocks, he had to decline.

“I’m like, I can’t do that. It’d be killing me if I step on one of those.”

Meanwhile, as the Lions headed into training camp, other things were privately killing him. No athlete feels as much a part of things when they can’t play. The creeping feeling of being forgotten is never far from your mind.

Jones occasionally would click on the Lions’ Web site and “I wouldn’t see pictures of me on the banner. I would see Cory (Redding) and (Jon) Kitna and Roy Williams – but it was like I wasn’t a face of the Lions anymore. That hurt me, to be honest. It hurt my feelings a little bit.

“But at the same time, I’m a realist. I mean, I know why it is.”

Jones’ injury was named after a French doctor in Napoleon’s army. It occurred in those days when horsemen got their feet stuck in stirrups while falling. Nowadays, you see it in car accidents, falls and, of course, sports, particularly football, when a player plants a foot and has someone else land on it.

Lions linebacker Teddy Lehman needed more than a year to recover from his Lisfranc injury. Errict Rhett, a running back for the Cleveland Browns, suffered a Lisfranc injury back in 2000 and never played again. Other NFL names sideswiped by this injury include Robert Ferguson (Green Bay), Duce Staley (when he was with Philadelphia), Glenn Earl (Houston) and Warrick Dunn (Atlanta). Some players come back quicker than others.

Jones is determined to be on the fast side. Although he didn’t play at all in the exhibition season, he took a handoff in practice last week, stuck his foot into the turf -“and it didn’t really hurt.”

That may sound small. But for Jones, it was huge.

The final step in the process

The Lions chose not to put Jones on the physically unable to perform list – which would have automatically sidelined him the first six weeks of the season. So now he goes week-to-week, making steady progress, getting comfortable with his cuts, with contact, with renewing his speed.

He makes no prediction about his date of return -“I don’t want to put my foot in my mouth,” he says, then laughs at the irony of the sentence – but whenever that day is, it will mark the end of a very long journey.

Young athletes think they can play for decades. Never-injured athletes think the never will be forever. The first time you have to come face-to-face with your career mortality can be a sobering experience. Kevin Jones is older than he used to be – in more ways than one.

“It’s been a humbling experience for me,” he said. He looked at the empty field, then lifted his healthy foot onto the table and rubbed it. “Maybe it happened for a reason, I don’t know. But I do know that being humbled makes you a better person.

“And it definitely brought me and my wife closer. I got to see how much I mean to her. She was there for everything. She gets an A-plus from me.”

The lights do not stay green forever. But the reds can change as well. Kevin Jones, not long ago, was pretty much the entire running game of the Detroit Lions. Now, with the bed, the cast, the boot and the marbles in his toes long behind him, he’s taking aim at what once was his. And while he can no longer say he never has been seriously injured, he can say he looked that experience in the eye, and he’s still standing, running and cutting. He’s also now a husband and a father. Who knows? Maybe before this season ends, he’ll be the No. 1 running back again. And maybe one day, the new husband and father will take off his shoes, get on those rocks and take the photo he missed. You find your footing any way you can.

SIDEBAR

By the numbers

Who: Running back Kevin Jones.

Vitals: Age 25, 6-0, 228 pounds.

Background: From Chester, Pa.; attended Virginia Tech.

Career: Drafted in 2004; alternate to the 2005 Pro Bowl.

CAREER STATS

YEAR GM ATT YDS REC YDS TDS 2004 15 241 1133 28 180 6 2005 13 186 664 20 109 5 2006 12 181 689 61 520 8 Total 40 608 2486 109 809 19

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This