GREEN BAY – On Tuesday, Devin Funchess stepped back on an NFL field, with helmet in hand, for the first time in exactly 21 months.
And it felt like he never left.
"I'm ready to play," said the veteran receiver after his first practice with the Packers earlier this week. "I'm 27 years old. There's nothing to question. I'm about to step into my prime, probably this year, next year, whatever it is. I don't know what it is … but I'm (ready to) play football."
After missing nearly all the 2019 season due to a broken collarbone suffered in the Indianapolis Colts' opener, Funchess chose to opt out last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The sixth-year receiver didn't elaborate on everything that happened while addressing the Green Bay media corps, but he explained his decision in a July 2020 Instagram post that he had family members who "experienced the life-threatening impact of COVID-19 firsthand."
"My family was going through some things. I felt it was best for me to be there for my family," Funchess said Tuesday. "I respected other people's decisions but I took my decision in my own hands.
"The mental strain that I had to deal with is something I can't even explain to y'all. Y'all probably wouldn't even be ready for that. … But I'm here now. I play football. My grandfather gave me the blessing to play this year. So, my grandfather is going to see a show. That's all it is."
The Packers had high hopes for Funchess after signing the 6-foot-4, 225-pound receiver to a one-year contract in March 2020. Prior to the collarbone injury, Funchess caught 164 passes for 2,233 yards and 21 touchdowns in 61 games over four seasons with the Carolina Panthers.
As a rookie in 2015, Funchess started in the Panthers' Super Bowl 50 appearance against the Denver Broncos. He enjoyed his most productive year with the Panthers in 2017, when he caught 63 passes for 840 yards and eight touchdowns in 16 starts.
Funchess put his time away from football to good use. He got baptized, spent time with family and kept training throughout. He picked the basketball up again to help with his conditioning, posting several highlight videos on his social accounts.
In the end, it brought him back to his purpose – to play football and provide for his family. Now in Green Bay for minicamp, Funchess has made a positive first impression on the coaches.
"Well, he sure looks the part, there's no doubt about that," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said. "You're talking about a big, strong, long, physical guy that can run, sink his hips. So, I know he's got a lot to learn, but we're excited about having him on this team and letting him go compete and we'll see what he can do."
While this is the first time Funchess has been in the same physical space as his Packers teammates, he's already well-acquainted with many of his fellow receivers. Pro Bowler Davante Adams said he FaceTimed with Funchess "six or seven" times this offseason.
Competition stands to be fierce in the receiver room this summer, with Funchess and third-round pick Amari Rodgers joining Adams, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Allen Lazard, Equanimeous St. Brown, and Malik Taylor, who all return from last year's 53-man roster.
The message Funchess has continued to give his teammates is he's here to add his "talents to an already talented room," not to take anything away from anybody. That workmanlike approach has been appreciated by his peers.
"He's a great dude, competitor, got high expectations for himself," Adams said. "He's a dog, I can tell that. He's as big as hell. He'll be able to offer up a lot to us. He's got the right mindset.
"Like I said about Jordy (Nelson)'s, his mind's in the right place and he's definitely trying to learn and trying to get better."
As a player, Funchess says nothing has changed – other than the beard he grew during the pandemic. He still feels he has some of the best feet in the game and is eager to prove that.
He's hungry to win again and enjoy the camaraderie of an NFL locker room – and plans to do so with a smile on his face and a Packers uniform on his back.
"I made it out of the struggle to understand that I need to make another sacrifice to put myself in a better situation," Funchess said. "That's what I did. I made a sacrifice; didn't collect a check and got my mental right and was ready to go.
"It's been a long time. It's just a blessing to be able to have the opportunity to play with these guys with the 'G' on my helmet."