TAMPA ― If there was ever a good reason to forget an anniversary, this was it for Ryan Jensen.
Exactly one year ago, Jensen was five plays from the end of a practice without pads in a two-minute drill and engaged with defensive tackle Vita Vea. That’s when defensive lineman Logan Hall beat guard Aaron Stinnie to the inside and either lost his footing or was pushed into the outside of Jensen’s left leg.
A piercing scream — born of both pain and fear –— echoed around AdventHealth Training Center.
Jensen’s knee was blown apart. In that moment, he tore his ACL, PCL and MCL as well as the lateral meniscus. He fractured the tibial head, and his kneecap was on the side of his leg.
On Friday, Jensen sat a few feet away from his 5-year-old son, Wyatt, and became emotional while describing how he had to let him know he was too hurt to play football.
“It was hard,” Jensen said, his voice breaking. “When I came home after that day to have to explain that to him, ‘Hey, dad got hurt today. I won’t be able to play football.’ Ten minutes later, he’s like, ‘Can we go play?’
“I’m in a cast, I can’t walk. ... It was hard to walk through that and see him broken-hearted for me. It just put a different perspective on stuff. It was tough. It helped me see things in a different perspective. In that moment, for me, it gave me some clarity of what’s truly important. Football is important, but family is everything.”
Jensen’s football family wasn’t sure how to react at the time he was injured. Some players looked away. Quarterback Tom Brady fell to one knee and stared at the ground.
Five doctors recommended reconstructive surgery as the only way to repair Jensen’s knee and save his career. It was advice he never took.
“It’s kind of funny ― ironic ― that it’s a year from today that I got hurt and all that,” Jensen said. “It was a journey, that’s for sure.
“I joked around with (trainer) Bobby (Slater) and the trainers, and they were like, ‘Don’t even say it!’” You’ve got to find some humor and comedy behind it. ... You can’t have anger and fear. You’ve got to attack every day like it’s a new day. Nothing special for me.”
How Jensen went from that moment to starting and playing in the Bucs’ wild-card playoff loss to the Cowboys in Janury is equal parts regenerative medicine and perhaps a miracle.
Though his agent, Jensen was referred to Don Shelbourne, an orthopedic doctor in Indianapolis who recommended a non-operative solution.
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“Right after, you get all the imaging done and this and that and you start sending that out to different doctors,” Jensen said, “and I had five separate opinions and ended up going with Dr. Shelbourne, who thought it was going to be better for me not to have an operation done and went that route.”
It was a winding path that led him from Tampa to the JW Marriott in Indianapolis, where be binged on “Breaking Bad” and ordered enough food in 10 days via Uber Eats that he packed on 12 pounds.
“It was very tough, being away from the family for 10 days after going through something like that,” Jensen said, “but I think it was the right thing to do for me and the knee.
“It was a mental battle. There were days I broke down and just sobbed.”
The swelling in Jensen’s knee was subsiding, and further tests revealed only a partial tear in the ACL. In November, Jensen flew to Antigua to be injected with stem cells cultivated from the umbilical cords donated from mothers who had cesarean sections.
Steadily, his knee began to improve. There was no way it seemed he would play again in 2022. But he returned to the practice field in December and was pushed to return to the starting lineup by Brady.
“Looking back, I probably shouldn’t have played,” Jensen said. “But at the same time, it was one of the ones where I wanted to go out there and help the team and be with my guys. It was an honor to be back on the field, and knowing it was Tom’s last game it was an honor to play with him and suit up one more time with him.”
Nothing prepared Jensen for the emotional lift he would feel running out of the tunnel onto the playing surface Jan. 16 at Raymond James Stadium to face the Cowboys.
“It was different for me. It brought it back to the first time I ever ran out of a tunnel,” Jensen said. " You kind of take advantage of that, you take it for granted at times. And for me running out there for the playoff game, it re-energized me. It brought me back to that 21-year-old kid and just reignited that fire and passion that I never really lost, but it just kind of reminded me how fast it can be over with.”
Jensen on Friday said his knee feels great, but the Bucs have not allowed him to do any team work and he’s begun training camp by taking every other day off.
“I’m feeling good,” he said. “Obviously, we have a plan set in place coming into camp we’re executing right now and finding the best plan of attack to keep the knee feeling really good like it is right now and we’re going to keep going forward with that. From a physical standpoint, it just is what it is.”
Jensen said he learned a lot about himself over the past year.
“I had a very healthy, easy path from a physical standpoint of not being injured ever to all of a sudden you’re on top of the world and you get brought back down,” he said. “It was a mental battle. There were days I broke down and just sobbed.
“(The experience was) a healthy thing, and it was tough. It was a tough year, but now I think it’s grown me as a person, as a man. It’s made me a better dad, a better husband and stuff like that. It’s definitely been an adventure.”
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