GREEN BAY – Demetri Goodson and Quinten Rollins dreamed about this day for a while now. In their darkest moments, it was their biggest source of motivation to stay on the comeback trail.
The Packers cornerbacks have each encountered their share of obstacles and setbacks on the road to recovery. For Goodson, it was overcoming the gruesome knee injury he sustained on a punt return against Washington on Nov. 20, 2016.
For Rollins, the past year has been about powering past the Achilles tendon he ruptured against Minnesota last October, an injury that threatened his availability for 2018 and beyond.
On Thursday night, Goodson and Rollins take the next step in putting those episodes behind them when they run out of the tunnel at Lambeau Field for the Packers' preseason opener against the Tennessee Titans.
"The football aspect was the light at the end of the tunnel for me because I'm not done," said Goodson this past week. "There's a way I want to leave this game. It's not going to be like that. I have my dreams, too. As long as you can keep fighting and keep on keeping on, anything is possible, but you have to be strong."
For two weeks, Goodson didn't sleep. His surgically repaired knee wouldn't allow it. Restless and weary, he did everything he could to stay positive.
He watched rehab videos on YouTube. He read articles on other professional athletes who overcame difficult knee injuries to return to the field. He did everything he could to numb the pain.
Until it would bite again.
"Picture the worst headache you've ever had in your life, stick it in your knee and then times it by 10 – that was my knee for the first two weeks," Goodson said. "The whole process you can't do anything by yourself. I couldn't get up and walk to the bathroom by myself."
To this day, Goodson's injury remains one of the ugliest knee injuries in the NFL over the last five years. Tearing nearly every ligament in his knee, Goodson was completely immobilized for weeks after surgery.
He leaned on his family to help him through it – figuratively, and at times, quite literally. Instead of training, most of Goodson's 2017 offseason was spent learning how to walk and run again.
Predictably, Goodson started the 2017 season on the physically unable to perform list. He returned to practice in mid-November and was activated to the 53-man roster Dec. 6 before suffering a hamstring injury soon thereafter. His season officially ended when Goodson was placed on injured reserve Dec. 22.
As hungry as Goodson was to make it back to the field, the fifth-year cornerback admits he wasn't ready. He still needed to redevelop the strength and trust in his quad to stand up to practicing hard three times a week.
There was one consolation. Goodson only had to take two weeks off once the season was over. He stayed up on his yoga and biking, and was back running and lifting in no time.
After participating in a majority of the offseason program, Goodson has been on the field for all 10 of the Packers' public practices in training camp.
"You don't really know until you get out there and run full speed," said Goodson of his false start last winter. "You can do all the stuff with the trainers all you want, but when you're out there and guarding somebody and going full speed, it's totally different than being in a training mode. I think that was a good thing I popped my hamstring last year to take that time off and really come back here ready to go."
Defying the odds
Rollins knew the gravity of his situation. The history – and timeline – of NFL players coming back from Achilles injuries isn't terrific.
That reality can be daunting for some, but Rollins found it inspiring. Instead of belaboring the disappointment, the former second-round pick dove headfirst into his rehab.
"It's defying the odds of being able to come back from an Achilles tear," Rollins said. "That, in itself, is motivation, regardless of coming back and just playing. Then, you add that with, 'OK, now it's healed, now can I go out there and perform with no limitations?' I'm just blessed to be back out there running around, having fun and being with the guys."
Rollins didn't have to travel far for his surgery, which was performed by Dr. Robert Anderson, the renowned foot and ankle specialist who relocated to Green Bay last year to become an associate team physician for the Packers.
After surgery, Rollins began doing research on the injury to better understand why his Achilles tore and what his rehab would look like. He also found examples of players who overcame the setback to enjoy fruitful NFL careers.
One of the biggest success stories, receiver Michael Crabtree, played five games in 2013 for San Francisco after tearing his Achilles during organized team activities. Sidney Jones, the college teammate of Packers cornerback Kevin King, returned in time for the Philadelphia Eagles' season finale last year after tearing his Achilles during a pro-day workout.
In Rollins' mind, why should his story be any different?
"It was just about taking the necessary steps to get back," Rollins said. "It had its days when it was feeling good and the next day it was like, 'I don't know what's going to come from it.' But I'm glad to be back, running around and nothing seems to be popping back up. Hats off to Dr. Anderson for a great surgery."
Rollins had only one small setback in his recovery, albeit scary. On a snowy day shortly after Thanksgiving, Rollins had a bad fall on his scooter he used for three months following surgery.
As the scooter slipped out from underneath Rollins, the only thing to break his fall was the protective boot he was wearing on his ankle.
"Your natural instinct is to put this foot down and when I did it, it was like, 'Oh, God.' That was painful," Rollins said. "I really thought I re-tore it, honestly, but the aching went away after a day or two."
It's been smooth sailing ever since, with Head Coach Mike McCarthy praising Rollins for his quick turnaround from the injury. This offseason, the Packers began testing Rollins' versatility, lining him up all across the secondary.
A former basketball player at Miami (Ohio), Rollins played only one season as a boundary cornerback for the RedHawks football team. He's enjoyed expanding his horizons this summer.
"I'm trying to be flexible and just find my niche within the defense," Rollins said. "I'm just trying to be a smart, versatile player, because in this defense, you can get plugged in at a lot of different spots."
'It's been worth it'
The injuries were vastly different, but Goodson and Rollins shared a common bond in their rehab. Shortly after Rollins tore his Achilles, Goodson was quick to reach out and offer advice on what helped him bounce back both physically and emotionally.
There still are good days and bad. That's to be expected for any player coming back from a devastating injury. It's about taking care of your body every day, even if that means begrudgingly hopping into the cold tub when you don't feel like it.
"We just help each other out in that aspect," Goodson said. "Some days you might be a little sore or your body might not feel like going today. It kind of takes a while to get your body practicing three-days-in-a-row hard like that. We just try to help each other stay positive throughout everything."
Neither Goodson nor Rollins ever questioned the pursuit of a comeback. Even during the toughest times, that wasn't an option. Every rehab session, every workout, every minute was geared towards getting back on the field.
Now, that moment is almost here. Although the ultimate goal is to make the 53-man roster and continue their NFL careers, both Goodson and Rollins know Thursday's game against the Titans is a major checkpoint that neither was ever guaranteed.
"It really hasn't hit me yet," Goodson said. "I already know the first snap when I'm running down there, I'm going to be juiced up. It's been a long process and I'm very happy the Packers stuck with me. They've seen how hard I've worked to have to come back from this. Most guys can't do it – and most guys who play corner definitely can't do it.
"It's been a long, hard process, but it's been worth it."