TAMPA — After spending 10 weeks recovering from a shoulder injury, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins was welcomed back to the NFL by hauling in a 15-yard pass from quarterback Jameis Winston in the first quarter last Sunday and taking a wicked shot from Falcons safety William Moore.
If Seferian-Jenkins has learned anything during this injury-filled part of his young career, it's how to get up after being knocked down.
"It felt good to get hit, and it felt good to get back up, but at the end of the day, William Moore packs a pretty powerful punch, so, yeah, I was a little sore," Seferian-Jenkins said.
Of course, nothing prepared Seferian-Jenkins for the haymakers, head shots and low blows he took on social media during the more than two months he spent unable to play. For about six of those weeks, the second-year tight end was able to practice but not cleared for contact. That only added to the bitterness felt by myopic fans who likely cared more about their fantasy football teams than the welfare of ASJ.
Get rid of him. He's soft. The Bucs are better off with Cameron Brate!
Whether on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, Seferian-Jenkins read it all.
"Honestly, the reality of it is there's fans out there that don't understand football players have serious injuries and they have to heal," Seferian-Jenkins said. "I understand they've got their fantasy leagues and they want their fantasy leagues to be good and they want to win their fantasy leagues. But it is part of the game. It's part of being a professional that you have to realize people are going to be upset if you can't go. So, yeah, it's a little frustrating when people are on your Twitter complaining that you're not playing. … It's just going to make me a better player. It's going to make me a better person."
On Nov. 9, Seferian-Jenkins responded on Twitter @Aesj88 to no one in particular. "I tell you one of the hardest things about playing football is not being able to play football. #FootballProbs."
Nothing has changed the NFL recently as much as social media, where the league has 4.5 million followers on Twitter and 7.5 million on Facebook. The Patriots had 276,000 mentions in the first week of the season. The direct interaction with players and fans is alluring but also can get confrontational.
Seferian-Jenkins stayed on the high road. Some fans seemed to forget that not only did he catch the first pass from Winston this season, he led the Bucs in receiving yards (139) and touchdowns (two) through the first two weeks before sustaining an injury to the acromioclavicular, or AC, joint, which is formed by the cap of the shoulder and collarbone.
Based on the amount of time it took Seferian-Jenkins to be cleared for contact, there likely were some torn ligaments involved. But rather than put him on injured reserve, where he would be lost for the season, the Bucs opted for an unusually long rehab.
Seferian-Jenkins, who played only nine games in 2014 as a rookie because of foot and back injuries, was as impatient as any fan to return to the field.
"No one wants to play more than Austin," offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. "If you ever watched Austin in those games when he was hurt on the sideline, he's the No. 1 cheerleader out there. I just know personally from my own conversations with him, that guy really missed playing. He wanted to play."
Seferian-Jenkins also has formed a special bond with Winston. The two were roommates on road trips, and their re-connection on the field was instant.
"His locker is right next to mine, so this last week he was excited," Winston said. "He always goes to practice, but this week before practice Austin had his pants, his jersey, his helmet, his pads all laid out in front of his locker. He had to take at least four showers throughout the whole day. He got in the hot tub at least six times. I don't know, he probably found a way to get in the hot tub during practice. He was just so ready, he was so anxious and it showed. He came out wanting the ball. He had a big day for us."
Seferian-Jenkins was limited to 21 snaps last week but figures to get more against the Saints.
"I was just super excited to get out there and play," Seferian-Jenkins said. "Football is what I love. I love to be around these guys, help support these guys in any way that I can. Being out on the football field was a big step to doing that. I was a little rusty out there, a little anxious, pressed a little too much, but I was very happy to be out there and very happy to do whatever I could to help."
Koetter said Seferian-Jenkins is ready for a heavier workload.
"He looked like a guy that hadn't played in nine weeks," Koetter said. "You take nine weeks off … practice is practice and game speed in the NFL is game speed. Then he took that shot. That was a good shot William Moore put on him. I was a little nervous when he kind of popped up, but he hung in there."
Turns out, that might be what ASJ does best.