GREEN BAY – Eric Stokes needed to think about it for a second.
Minutes after practicing for the first time in 11 months, the Packers' third-year cornerback was asked about the most difficult part of his return from the torn meniscus and Lisfranc injury he suffered last November in Detroit.
"The hardest point would easily be…" said Stokes, briefly pausing. "God, there were multiple."
Separate surgeries, a lengthy rehab and a few setbacks tested the convictions of one of the most happy-go-lucky players in Green Bay's locker room. As his team mounted a late playoff push, Stokes was confined to a wheelchair.
His knee was mostly healed by organized team activities and the 6-foot cornerback was cleared to run again. He hoped his foot might be ready for training camp or Week 1, at the very least.
That was until a hamstring issue emerged this summer and slowed his progress. It forced Stokes to start the regular season on the physically unable to perform list, sidelining him for at least the first four games of the 2023 campaign.
Stokes kept his smile, but the wait was still hard, especially after linebacker Rashan Gary – who tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the same Lions game in which Stokes was injured – started practicing again in early August.
"I was down bad," Stokes said. "The days I thought I was coming back or thought I was coming closer, then boom something else would happen and it would set me back again. Those days were real-deal tough."
Understanding every injury is different, Stokes remained locked in on his rehab. He also credits former Georgia teammate and current Packers linebacker Quay Walker for helping the former first-round pick stay positive through the setbacks.
Counting down the days on the calendar, Stokes finally got that good news from head athletic trainer Bryan Engel after the Packers' Week 4 matchup with Detroit.
An elated Stokes returned to put his helmet back on Tuesday, opening a 21-day window for him to be activated to the 53-man roster. Once on the field, Stokes wasn't the only one smiling.
"It's good to have him out there," cornerback Rasul Douglas said. "He's been low-key out there the whole time with us because he'd be doing running next to us and stuff like that.
"We know he's ready, we know he's eager to actually put the pads on. Now, he's got to see if he's in football shape."
Stokes played a lot of football before the injury. He saw 935 defensive snaps as a rookie in 2021 and started 23 of his first 25 regular-season appearances in Green Bay.
The question now, at least externally, is where Stokes fits into the Packers' secondary. For the past five months, Douglas, All-Pro Jaire Alexander, and nickelback Keisean Nixon have worked as the primary trio at cornerback.
Stokes isn't worried about that, though. The focus right now is getting more practice reps under his belt and being ready whenever, and wherever, the Packers call on him to contribute.
"I'm fitting in wherever they need me at," Stokes said. "I know we already got a little thing going with 'Sul, Ja and Kei and all that stuff. Wherever they need me, I'm gonna fit in. Special teams, get my role in on dime, whatever."
Stokes still feels like the lightning-quick cornerback who was clocked in the 4.3s during his college pro day in 2021. He's also mentally locked in after investing a lot of time in the film room while searching for things to improve upon once cleared.
Stokes admittedly experienced a little stomach pain while getting taped up before Tuesday's practice, but those jitters quickly subsided once he stepped back on the field.
While the road to recovery was challenging, Stokes believes he learned an important lesson in patience, preparation and the privilege of playing at football's highest level.
"I just kept looking at the bigger picture," Stokes said. "I know for a fact this happened for a reason. It wasn't an accident. It wasn't nothing that I did. My injury happened for a reason. It sat me down for something.
"My worst day is somebody's great day. You just gotta look at that and keep on pushing through and keep moving. Once I changed my mindset on everything, then everything else came easy."