Sometimes, physical pain is more tolerable than mental anguish.
Though he'd never suffered a serious knee injury before, Dion Lewis knew his was bad. In a game against Washington here at Gillette Stadium last November, the Patriots running back took a handoff up the middle, made a sharp cut – like he routinely did last autumn – and fell to the turf without being hit. He'd planted his left leg in the artificial turf in just the wrong manner and with such force that he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
The pain, he recalled, was excruciating, but not nearly as painful as the reality that he wouldn't be able to finish the 2015 season – one that had started out so promising for him and the Patriots.
"I was upset," Lewis admitted. "The pain wasn't really that bad, it was just the fact that I wasn't going to be out there playing with my teammates. That's what hurt the most.
"It was extremely hard. I love this game, and whenever I'm not allowed to play it, it hurts. Hopefully, things will be different this year. It's a new year. Last year was a disappointing finish. We're just trying to build from last year and the mistakes we made."
Lewis spoke with reporters after Monday's organized team activity (OTA) session, his first on-field action since that November afternoon. He was active in individual drills early in practice and took part in some offensive group work, but was more of a spectator later during full 11-on-11 team action.
He seemed to favor his left knee slightly, but took part in the entire workout without the aid of a brace that players usually sport after such an injury. He said the team's training staff told him he didn't need one, which might be viewed as an encouraging sign of his rehab progress. Lewis credited the "hard work" he cited several times for his ability to be on the football field again just seven months after his injury.
"A little rusty," Lewis acknowledged. "Just trying to be myself again. Still trying to get better and stronger every day. Felt okay [today]. Happy to be back out there with my teammates. It's been a while, so, just having fun. Good to be part of the team again.
I'm just following the trainers' advice and doing whatever they tell me to do. Following their lead and working as hard as I can. Every day is different. I just do what I'm told."
As a pleasant surprise to emerge from last summer's training camp, he wowed many observers with his speed, elusiveness, and lightning-quick reactions when he had the ball in his hands. But players who suffer ACL tears often don't return to full form until a full year or more after their surgeries. And often, the mental hurdle is harder to overcome than the physical one, when it comes to rehabbing.
Lewis, though, maintained that he will continue to play with the same abandon he showed throughout the first half of last season.
"That's the only way I know how to play. I'm going to play exactly the same way I always played. That's who I am. In the beginning, it was a little scary, but every day I get stronger. I feel better every day."
He has even tried (without much success, he added) to lobby medical staff to make him do more, at times, than they've felt appropriate.
"The hardest part [of the rehab process] was not being able to do stuff I thought I could do, or taking it slower than I think I should. But the trainers did a great job. I've been here so long [rehabilitating] with these guys… I see them too much," he chuckled.
Entering his fifth NFL season and second with the Patriots, Lewis has been plagued by injuries throughout his pro career. Because he'd never torn an ACL before, he sought the advice of teammates who'd overcome similar problems, but that ultimately, he listened to his body to guide him in his recovery.
He also embraced the medical adversity he's faced in the NFL, declaring that it has made him "a stronger person for it, that's for sure."
In the same breath, he tried not to place too much significance on his appearance at today's OTA.
"I'm just happy to be out here today. We've got a long way to go, high expectations. I wouldn't consider it a milestone or a checkpoint. I just consider it another day working.
Just getting back to playing football. Being out there and actually doing stuff you hear about in meetings. It's fun to be out there. I miss being out there."
He might still need time to get back to full physical strength, but Lewis showed that he's in mid-season form in terms of dealing with the media. When Lewis mentioned the month of September in one of his answers, a reporter pounced on the opportunity to ask if the player felt he'd be ready for the opener at Arizona.
Lewis paused for a moment, then grinned.
"Week 1's a long way away."
Gronk gets involved, too
Lewis wasn't the only high-profile Patriot to return to practice Monday. TE Rob Gronkowski, who sat out all the previous spring practices at which media were present, suited up and took part in most of the individual and team work.
"It felt great," he announced afterward. "It's always good to be out there with your teammates, working with your teammates in individual drills, team drills, just being out there, getting on the same page, just getting into flow with them. It's always good to get back out on the field."
So, what was the story with his prior absences?
"I was just doing other things, as Coach [Bill Belichick] said last week," Gronkowski smiled. "So, everything's all smooth, everything's good."
Players cannot, by rule, take part in spring practices in full pads. Only helmets are allowed. So, Gronkowski was asked what benefit can be derived from such workouts. "The biggest value is consistency, going out there and making sure you're still on the same page [with your teammates]," he replied. "You don't want to lose it, you want to keep on getting gains, you want to improve. You go out there and make sure you knock all the rust out, we're always on the same page and just don't lose it. Just keep going out, keep working hard and keep getting better."
See you in July!
Check out some of the best images from Patriots OTA practice at Gillette Stadium on Monday, June 13, 2016.
Monday's OTA practice was the final one that media were allowed to watch this spring. The Patriots will continue practicing a few more days this week, but the next time the media and public will see the players in uniform will be in late July, when training camp opens.