TAMPA — Bucs defensive end Da'Quan Bowers ruptured his right Achilles tendon during an offseason workout exactly six months ago today.
Bowers said it wasn't painful, more of a weird feeling.
"It felt like my shoe fell off," he said. "It was the rehab that was the hardest part."
Bowers' long and sometimes lonely rehab had him running in pools, riding an exercise bike, boxing in the weight room and climbing stairs in a parking garage. But it was how the 22-year-old attacked the process that enabled him to come back so soon as he prepared Friday to play his third game of a season many thought lost.
"He never got down," Bucs assistant strength and conditioning coach Bob Gilmartin said. "And he never had any setbacks."
Recovery time for a ruptured Achilles tendon usually ranges from six months to a year. Bowers said it helped that his was an even tear, repaired by surgery May 11. It did test his patience as he spent the next two months wearing a boot before moving on to crutches then a softer boot.
Over that time, Bowers focused a lot on his upper body, which he said is stronger than it has been in his entire life. (He has raised his bench press by 50 pounds.) His power showed in August, when, with the foot stabilized, he delivered a three-punch combination on a 100-pound heavy bag attached to a staircase in the Bucs' weight room.
"He hit the bag so hard, he broke the big bolt that went through one of the beams," strength and conditioning coach Jay Butler said. "It was holding up the bag, and he snapped the thing right off."
Boxing was one alternative exercise Bowers went through before he was cleared to run outside. He ran a lot in the pool with increased degrees of resistance from jets and competed with Gilmartin on the exercise bike.
"I can usually beat most guys, but I couldn't beat him," Gilmartin said.
During training camp, Bowers went to all team meetings. But once teammates hit the field, he did morning and afternoon sessions with Gilmartin. He lifted weights, biked and went down the street to St. Joseph's Hospital for intervals of running up 10 flights of stairs in the parking garage.
"There wasn't a whole lot of on-field access until late in the rehab," Bowers said. "I'd peak out the door during camp and see (teammates) and get all mad and frustrated and say, 'I'm so far away.' But that time went by fast."
He was outside by September, moving his way up to pushing sleds and doing agility drills to get into football shape. Bowers, who started the season on the physically unable to perform list, returned to practice Oct. 17. At that point, the Bucs had two weeks to activate him or put him on season-ending injured reserve.
With defensive end Adrian Clayborn lost to a season-ending knee injury, the Bucs hoped Bowers could boost their pass rush — if he was physically ready. They brought him along at a deliberate pace, activating him for the Vikings game Oct. 25 but using him only on third downs.
He played more last week against the Raiders and could see even more snaps Sunday against the Chargers. Though his conditioning is still not where he wants it to be, he has been productive with a sack and three tackles.
In doing so, the 2011 second-round pick silenced doubters.
"I don't know if it's good genes or rehab specialists," Bowers said. "But the guys did a great job with me. I made a statement as soon as I hurt it that I'd be playing this year. Nobody seemed to believe me.
"It's been a tough road, but I'm glad to be where I am now."