Packers DL Billy Winn completes three-year odyssey back to the NFL

Wife’s lupus battle kept defensive lineman’s professional comeback in perspective

DL Billy Winn

GREEN BAY – Mike Pettine had to do a double-take at first when the list of the Packers' upcoming workouts was placed in front of the team's third-year defensive coordinator last month.

"I was like, 'Is that, is that the Billy Winn? The same Billy Winn that I know?'" Pettine recalled on Thursday.

That Billy Winn was the veteran defensive lineman who played three seasons for Cleveland, a stretch that included Pettine's first year as the Browns' head coach in 2014.

That Billy Winn also happens to be the same one whose NFL career was brought to a halt due to season-ending knee and triceps injuries, both suffered in preseason openers, that sidelined him for the 2017 and 2019 seasons, respectively.

While thumbing through sports administration jobs on the West Coast, Winn kept working out this offseason in hopes of getting one more call from the NFL – finally resulting in a September summons from Green Bay that turned out to be his ticket back.

The Packers signed Winn to their practice squad on Sept. 16 and elevated him to the game-day roster for the Week 3 trip to New Orleans. When he took the field at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, it officially had been 1,365 days since he played in his last regular-season game with Denver on Jan. 1, 2017.

Following another of elevation to the game-day roster, Winn cemented his comeback last Saturday when Green Bay promoted the 31-year-old defensive lineman to its active roster.

"It was incredible," said Winn on Thursday. "The emotions were so high because it's like, I trained my tail off since January and I wasn't sure if I was going to get a call or not. I finally got the call from Green Bay, and I was just ecstatic. I was just so excited to represent someone, represent myself, and just being part of an organization that wins games."

The 6-foot-4, 305-pound defensive lineman went through a lot to get back to football's proving ground. Even prior to tearing his anterior cruciate ligament, Winn dealt with a season-long back injury in 2016 he jokingly refers to as "the epidural year."

The ACL tear sidelined him for nearly two years before re-signing with the Broncos prior to the 2019 season. In his first game back, the Pro Football Hall of Fame game against Atlanta, Winn torn his triceps muscle and went immediately back to injured reserve.

There were plenty of moments Winn considered giving up on a comeback. Maybe it was a sign he was meant to do something else. But his wife of three years, Brooke, kept things in perspective.

That's because more than a decade ago Brooke was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease in which a person's immune system attacks the body's own tissue and organs, including the heart, lungs, joints and kidneys. It's forced Brooke to endure a series of surgeries, including a 15-hour full hip replacement last year.

For that reason, while on the injured reserve, Winn participated in last year's "My Cause, My Cleats" initiative to raise awareness and money for The Lupus Foundation of America.

When doubt started to trickle into Winn's mind after he was released by Denver in March, Brooke and her "never-quit" attitude pulled her husband back to his feet.

"She was like, 'You know what? I don't think you're done. You need to keep going,'" Winn recalled. "'I don't think you should end your career on an injury. Give it one more shot, see how you feel. If you get a job, great. If you don't, then the real world starts and you go that route.'"

With Brooke monitoring his diet, Winn got back in shape throughout the spring and summer. The couple has needed to remain vigilant during the COVID-19 pandemic, though, cleaning their house daily and being mindful of Brooke's fevers.

The phone didn't ring until the NFL was two weeks into its regular season, maybe a blessing in disguise given Winn's rotten luck with preseasons.

A rule change allowing teams to carry two players with unlimited experience on their practice squads worked to Winn's benefit as it bought him time to catch up on the Packers' playbook in-season.

Called up for last month's game in New Orleans, Winn took the field for the first time since he and Brooke had met. After three years of his own surgeries, Winn stamped his comeback with a pass deflection of future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees.

There was no question who deserved the credit for him being there.

"I tell her this all the time, I can never complain or will never complain about anything because it'll never compare to what she's going through on a regular basis and the fight that she's got to deal with," said Winn of his wife. "My worst days are normal days for her. Anyone else's hardest day during the year is a normal, 365-day for her."

Relieved to back in an NFL uniform, Winn looks forward to what the 2020 season holds. Despite missing three seasons, he's still the most experienced player in the Packers' defensive line room with 71 career regular-season games played.

And when Winn says he enjoys being on a team "that wins games," he genuinely means it. Since entering the league as a sixth-round pick out of Boise State in 2012, Winn still has yet to play in an NFL postseason game.

Finally healthy, Winn feels he's in the right place to make that happen.

"That's a great story," said Pettine of Winn's comeback. "I think he's really good for the young guys in the room. He certainly brings some personality to the room.

"I'm happy for him. I'm happy for us that he's here. It's really good to see him back in the league."

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