Veteran LB unaccustomed to spectator's role
Bills LB Takeo Spikes is accustomed to causing pain and suffering, but his season-ending injury has been a trying experience at times.
ATLANTA -- The bedroom is silent, dimly lit, its grayish-beige walls as expressionless as the Pro Bowl linebacker who sits within them.
To the man's right, a remote control. To his left, an NFL call sheet. And on the flat screen in front of him, images from a recent NFL game. One by one the frames go by, his defense struggling to slow the opponent. A run to the left. A pass to the right. A draw up the middle.
Not once does the man see himself. Not once does No. 51 toss aside blockers, meet the running back in the hole and flatten him. Not once does he drop into pass coverage, lock eyes with the quarterback and coax an ill-advised pass that becomes an interception.
|Takeo Spikes photo gallery|
Takeo Spikes' time away from the Bills has been far from a vacation. Take a look inside the Pro Bowler's life as he prepares to make a return in 2006.
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The roar of the crowd, the smell of the field, the banter with teammates -- it's all gone. He has attended all but one of Buffalo's home games, but for the most part, his week-to-week interactions with the game he loves, the core of his existence, have been reduced to sitting in his bedroom watching game film.
"It makes me feel like I'm part of something," Spikes explains. "And any little bit of success I see on the field because of something I saw in film just lights my fire."
So, too, does watching opposing offenses push the Bills around. His team is near the bottom of the AFC East and his defense is ranked 28th in the league, pushing Spikes, the emotional heartbeat of the Buffalo defense, to spend every waking minute preparing his mind and body for a comeback.
It means eight hours in the back seat of a Range Rover for a seven-minute appointment in Birmingham, Ala., with acclaimed sports surgeon Dr. James Andrews. Ten hours each week in rehab. Ten more in a hyperbaric chamber. And an endless amount of time watching film, not only helping his Bills coaches prepare for that week's opponent but also making a mental to-do list for September 2006.
On this day, New England tight end Daniel Graham makes the list after shoving a Buffalo linebacker after the whistle.
"He should know better," Spikes says. "That doesn't happen when I'm on the field. No. 82 -- he's got it coming. He's one of many. There's going to be some housecleaning in the league when I get back.
"It doesn't matter when or how they're going to get it, but they're going to get it."
It's a chilly mid-December morning, and Spikes should be at the Bills' Orchard Park practice facility, finishing the morning walk-through and grabbing a turkey sandwich before a pre-practice workout. Instead, the 6-foot-2, 245-pound linebacker is lying facedown on an examining table in Andrews' office.
The man who popularized Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery runs his hands over Spikes' ankles, dragging his fingers across the zipper-like seven-inch scar on the back of his right foot.
"How long has it been again?" Andrews asks.
"Eleven-and-a-half weeks," Spikes replies.
"You sure?" the doctors asks.
"Yes, sir," Spikes answers.
"Well, it looks fantastic," Andrews says. "The muscles around the area are starting to come back, the sensation is returning around the incision. I want you to continue to take it slow, but there are a lot of things here to get excited about."
|“||As I was laying there, my first thought was just absolute shock that I was going to miss my first game because of injury. My second thought -- to be a realist -- was what if I can't come back? ”|
The report is a far cry from three months earlier, when the future was nothing but dark. Lying on the Ralph Wilson Stadium turf back in September, Spikes knew his season was over. His Achilles had been bothering him for more than a year, and on the Thursday before the game, he said he partially tore it while planting his right foot in practice. Doctors gave him three options: rest, surgery or play. Spikes chose the latter.
On Atlanta's last drive of the first half, Buffalo's coaches called on the linebacker to blitz Michael Vick from the right.
"I knew this was it," Spikes said. "My leg was either going to be with me or against me. I was going all out."
As Spikes turned the corner, he crumbled to the ground. The tendon had snapped. And he knew it.
"As I was laying there, my first thought was just absolute shock that I was going to miss my first game because of injury," Spikes said. "My second thought -- to be a realist -- was what if I can't come back? What if I never play again? And thank God I took care of my money."
Team officials carted Spikes to the locker room, where his mother, Lillie, and Brent Miller, his personal assistant and close friend, met them.
"He just sat there and cried," Lillie said. "He said to me, 'Momma, I ain't never been so hurt since Daddy died.' It just ate at him -- he felt he let his teammates down. It was everything I had not to break down with him. But I had to be the strong one."
Said Miller: "The frustration just kept pouring down his face, knowing that he wasn't going to be able to contribute. It hurt."
Two days later, Spikes was in Birmingham and Andrews was surgically reconnecting the torn tendon.
Back in Andrews' office, almost 12 weeks later, Spikes is hoping for even more good news. He wants the doctor to tell him to leave his bulky protective boot behind and start wearing gym shoes. Little does Andrews know that Spikes already is hobbling around his home in bare feet. Little does he know that Miller brought the extra shoe with them today, just in case they get the news.
But Andrews suggests that Spikes wear the boot until Christmas, especially in high-traffic areas. After that, he can wear shoes.
"Did he tell me what I wanted to hear or did he just manipulate me into thinking I got what I wanted?" Spikes asks.
After he leaves Andrews' office, an empty stomach directs Spikes to a Birmingham Red Lobster, where he and Miller discuss bowling, paintball and how to program the stereo on Spikes' brand-new, supercharged Range Rover. Each topic brings out a smile worthy of a GQ cover.
It wasn't always that easy. In the first few weeks following the injury, Spikes was miserable. Spending time with him was like hanging with a newly divorced mother of six.
"He was very difficult to get along with," Lillie said. "Just mad at the world, short-tempered and bitter. Absolutely bitter."
Spikes had decided to rehab at his offseason home in Atlanta because he thought it would be easier. His family and friends would be there to support him: Mom would be three hours away, Dr. Andrews the same, and his bedroom would be on the first floor. But it was just as much of a challenge. Like a middle manager sneaking out of the office early for a round of 18, Spikes felt guilty enjoying his time away from his teammates.
"I was mad at people if they felt sorry for me, mad at people if they didn't feel sorry for me," he said. "It was a fine line. People would come over to my house wanting to hang out and it was like, 'I'm not supposed to be here, man. We aren't supposed to be having fun.'
"I just needed to go through my moods."
And Lillie needed to hammer it into her son's head that everything happens for a reason. That he should take advantage of his time in Atlanta and take care of his own life by spending more time with his daughter Jakai, 3. It proved to be the best rehab he could find.
"I'd be in a terrible mood and she'd just wipe the slate clean," Spikes said. "She has no idea, but she's been one of the most important parts of all this."
Six weeks after the injury came another turning point. Spikes and Miller sat down for a meeting with agent Todd France, who outlined how they were going to get Spikes back on the field and what the future would hold after that.
"Remember those old TV sets, you would hit them on the side and give them an adjustment?" said Miller, who gave Spikes a bookmark with each of Buffalo's 2006 opponents. "He just needed his adjustment."
Spikes, Miller and France came up with a marketing campaign: The Comeback. It was as much for Spikes as anyone else. They had T-shirts made with the slogan, "THE COMEBACK: September 2006," screened in red ink on the front. On the back, there was a message for anyone who wondered what type of player the All-Pro planned on being when he returned.
Bigger. Stronger. Faster. Better.
"The goal was to get the message out: 'If you thought I was done, you thought wrong,'" Spikes said. "This is just halftime. I'm just taking a quick break, letting my body heal and then I'm going to come out and tear it up in the third and fourth quarter of my career."
Three months later, his mothers words still ring in his ears. Everything happens for a reason.
This fall, Spikes spent Thanksgiving at home for the first time in 14 years. He'll be home for Christmas for the first time in 13 years. He's spent an endless amount of time with Jakai. And then there's the story of the woman he met during a six-week stint at HyOx, a hyperbaric medical facility.
For two hours a day, five days a week, over a span of six weeks, Spikes entered a submarine-like structure with as many as 11 strangers, where they would talk, watch movies and play cards while doctors pressurized the chamber, super saturating their tissues with oxygen to promote healing.
Through conversation, Spikes discovered one patient, Wynnoa Johnson, was a New Orleans evacuee whose time was running out on a hotel room that FEMA was paying for.
"At that point, they were going to be homeless," said Liz Lewis, the operations manager for HyOx. "So Mr. Spikes asked me what he could do."
Johnson and her mom needed six months of rent money before they'd be able to return to their homes and doctors in New Orleans. So Spikes wrote a check. Later, he remembered his mom. Everything happens for a reason.
"If I don't get injured, if I don't come here for therapy, if I don't meet this woman, who knows?" Spikes said.
"They'd be homeless, or in a shelter," Lewis said. "That's not what we wanted, but there wouldn't have been a choice."
As Spikes prepares to leave the chamber one last time, Lewis tells him that she'll see him on TV. But a technician chimes in, reminding her that the Bills aren't on television much in Atlanta.
"Don't worry," Spikes says with a smile. "That puts more pressure on me to make the nightly highlights. You'll see me on the highlights."
His eyes are closed. His face is blank. But Spikes' mind and legs are racing. As his arms hold onto the railings of an underwater treadmill, his feet glide along at a pace of .7 miles an hour, the fastest he's moved since the injury. His mind begins to picture the 2006 season.
"This is when it happens," Spikes said. "This is when I close my eyes and visualize running out of that tunnel. This is when I picture chasing down L.T. [LaDainian Tomlinson], making a hard plant and dragging him to the ground. This is when I can hear the crowd, when I can smell the field."
But the only smell inside The Sports Rehabilitation Clinic in Midtown Atlanta is that of sweat. Within these walls, three days a week, three hours at a time, Spikes faces challenges that no weight room offered in his previous 29 years.
Challenges like picking up 20 miniature marbles with the toes of his injured foot and dropping them in a jar. Or performing 30 sit-ups on a Swiss ball while tossing a medicine ball overhead. Or standing on a balance board without falling over.
"There's no doubt in my mind he is going to be better than ever," said Brian Tovin, who is heading Spikes' rehab program in Atlanta. "Certain individuals were born to play football. Other individuals were born to work hard. He's both. He's so self-motivated, I have to put the brakes on and slow him down. He wants to do too much."
Over the course of three hours, Spikes will perform a full-body workout, strengthening his injured leg while maintaining the muscles in the rest of his chiseled body. The man who walks in the door full and energized will push himself in 20 different exercises, walking out hungry and exhausted.
"When I'm about to hit the wall, I pretend that it's third-and-one," Spikes said. "And I ask myself, 'Are you gonna let them get it? This is for the playoffs. One yard. Who wants it more -- you or them?'"
Days like this -- when Spikes pushes his body to the absolute physical limit -- have become the norm. They have to be. It's the only way back.
"They're not working as hard as me today," Spikes says after the last sit-up.
"What?" Tovin asks, unable to hear the linebacker.
"I said, 'They're not working as hard as me today,'" Spikes yells.
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on Take Spikes, check out www.takeospikes51.com.