TAMPA — Late in the third quarter of a Week 6 game, Bucs tight end Cameron Brate caught a short pass over the middle from Tom Brady and was hit immediately by Steelers linebacker Myles Jack.
“I wasn’t really expecting a guy to be there,” Brate said. “I was kind of in the process of turning up field, and he just kind of got me in the right spot.”
Brate remained on the ground for several seconds, then began to sit up before grabbing the sides of his helmet with both hands.
Two weeks earlier, Brate had left a game against the Chiefs with a concussion that forced him to miss the following week’s game against the Falcons.
Trainers rushed to Brate on the field in Pittsburgh and determined he had suffered some sort of neck injury. Although he hadn’t lost movement in any of his extremities, they took extra precautions.
Brate’s head was immobilized. They unscrewed his face mask, and he was strapped to a backboard, lifted onto a stretcher and rushed to a hospital for evaluation. He gave a thumbs-up on his way off the field.
“You don’t want to ever be put in that position,” Brate said, “kind of helpless on the ground and stuff.”
Slightly more than 1,000 miles away, his newlywed wife was at the Tampa home of long snapper Zach Triner with about a dozen other spouses and girlfriends of Bucs players for a watch party.
The room fell silent. Some began to weep. But Brate’s wife, the former Brooke Skelley, kept her emotions in check like an NFL veteran.
She had worked for several years in the Bucs’ communications department and waited for what she knew would be an inevitable phone call.
“Having been around the game long enough, you realize that injuries are unfortunately part of the game,” she said. “Obviously, this time was a bit more scary, but I feel very fortunate we are an organization that puts such a priority on making sure a player’s significant other is informed on the status of their player when an injury occurs.”
Duke Preston, the team’s vice president of player engagement, reached Brooke first before later handing the phone over to trainer Bobby Slater to let her know her husband was OK.
“I was made aware of his status before the stretcher even came out, so I was thankfully not watching it back in Tampa completely unaware of what was happening,” Brooke said. “That’s not to say it wasn’t absolutely terrifying, because it was. But I’m just thankful he’s OK and so pleased with the way he was taken care of and how I was kept informed.”
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Even so, you have to wonder what was going through the minds of Brate’s family and friends following the concussion and what later was diagnosed as a neck sprain over the span of two weeks.
“Yeah, it was a tough couple of weeks there for me,” Brate said. “But you know, I’ve just been working with the trainers and everything. I’m sure it was hard for my wife to see and everything. It probably looked worse than it was. But yeah, I’ve just been working hard to feel healthy again and trying to get back into football shape.”
The 31-year-old already had beaten long odds to make it to the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2014 from Harvard.
He has earned nearly $26 million in nine years as a pro and has been a valuable player who helped the Bucs win Super Bowl 55 for the 2020 season. In fact, Brate needs just one more touchdown reception to tie Jimmie Giles for second most in franchise history with 34.
Four weeks after the neck injury, Brate returned to the lineup Nov. 13 against the Seahawks in Germany.
“It was like a month off between the last time I played and with the travel schedule we had, we didn’t have a ton of contact in practice that week. So the first couple plays, yeah, I was a little bit (anxious) just to make sure everything was still going good,” he said. “It was awesome to be able to play and just a fun game to be a part of.”
Brate even caught a pass for 8 yards, putting the Bucs at the Seattle 7. They scored a touchdown three plays later.
“Set up my teammates,” he said. “You know, I don’t want the glory for myself.”
The phone call from Pittsburgh is not one Brooke will forget. She kept it together until getting the final word that her husband was safe, then fell into the arms of Marissa Griffin, wife of backup quarterback Ryan Griffin.
“It was probably more scary for probably other people than it was for myself” Brate said. “I was able to move everything. It kind of puts things in perspective a little bit, but also it makes you realize how much you love playing.
“I can’t imagine not playing, especially going out like that would not be the way I’d want to do it.”
Today, Brate and his wife will be serving Thanksgiving dinner at their home for 34 Bucs teammates, wives and children.
“I’m thankful to be back playing football again,” Brate said. “Lots to be thankful for.”
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