GREEN BAY – Byron Bell’s left ankle is a mess. It’s permanently swollen like a tennis ball in the middle, and his skin is marked, like a pair of parentheses, on both sides with dark scars.
Those are souvenirs from surgery. There’s a rod in there, a plate, 17 screws …
“And a tight rope to keep my ankle centered,” said Bell, shaking his head at the thought of it after a recent Green Bay Packers practice.
It was the last play of the first OTA practice for the 2016 season when he played for Tennessee, and Bell was running on an outside zone when he got locked on a linebacker and slipped on the grass.
“I was going this way, and my ankle was going that way,” Bell said. “It broke. For whatever reason, that play was the play that got me.”
As Titans beat reporter Jason Wolf described the scene for the Tennessean: "Players ran off the field screaming, some sick to their stomachs, calling for help and dropping to their knees to pray. (Bell) laid on his back with his left leg in the air, his foot awkwardly twisted and drooping, certain his season was over, virtually before it began."
Offensive linemen can be beasts in the weight room, bench-pressing a car and dead-lifting a tank, but if they don’t have healthy feet and ankles, then all that strength is neutralized. That’s why Packers fans held their breath this month when their starting left tackle went down.
It wasn’t surprising that David Bakhtiari suffered a left ankle injury during the team's annual night practice at Lambeau Field, just as it wasn't surprising that he recuperated quickly enough to appear in the Packers' second exhibition game Thursday against Pittsburgh.
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Offensive linemen are an interesting position group. They are both more vulnerable to ankle and foot injuries but are also often capable of doing their jobs despite the limitations and liabilities of those injuries.
But it's not easy.
Although their position doesn't call for the kind of running that ball carriers and receivers do, linemen get frequent foot and ankle injuries simply because of geography and proximity.
“It’s just the physicality in the trenches. Or, we call it, a phone booth,” guard/tackle Adam Pankey said. “It’s real tight and compact and sometimes you get feet on top of feet. It sometimes just gets messy.”
“That’s where so many injuries happen,” Bell said. “There’s so many big bodies in there. You just don’t know who’s falling down.”
There are other contributing factors when 300-pound men run, cut and plant so much.
“In general, we’re maybe less flexible than wide receivers; there’s more muscle around the ankles,” center Corey Linsley said. “It makes us a little more susceptible than other position groups.”
Said Bell: “A lot of us big guys lose our arches, growing up – at least I did at an early age. I wear orthotics. Most of my reason was growing up, walking outside with no shoes on, being a country boy.”
To manage, Bell relies on ice and recovery boots to help with inflammation and the Packers continue to work on breaking down his scar tissue.
All the linemen work in the strength room specifically for their feet, doing calf raises – Linsley prefers that exercise with additional weight on a bar – and band work, shifting the ankle left and right with the band for resistance. But when they’re hurt, they work even more.
“That is the hardest part about being injured – you basically have to fit in another workout, add extra work, on top of your schedule,” Linsley said.
Bell is fine now, grateful even, because he thought his career was over after being sidelined for the entire 2016 season. He said the training staff at Tennessee did a great job with rehabilitation, led by Adrian Dixon, the Titans' assistant athletic trainer. He helped Bell recover, which was a two-part effort.
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“At first, it affected me mentally. I had done this back-side-on-linebacker block – I have had 80-some starts in this league – my whole career,” Bell said. “And every time I had that back-side block, it was always in the back of my mind. Now I don’t even think about it.”
Sometimes you’ll see the legs of a lineman churning even if he’s not necessarily moving. That’s a strategy for ankle and knee injury avoidance.
“Your safest bet is just not getting your dead feet in the phone booth,” Pankey said. “When you’re tired you’ll naturally want to stop, but when you stop you put your feet in danger. If I feel like I’m stalemating somebody, I kind of know that that ball is somewhere close to me, I better keep my feet active, even if I am not going nowhere. The last thing I want is being stuck in the ground.”
Linsley has played with a Lisfranc (midfoot) injury in college and an ankle sprain in Green Bay.
“Guys do all of the time. It’s not out of the realm of the position group,” he said.
The one thing Packers offensive line coach James Campen looks for is maintenance power. That has to be there even with the bad ankle or foot.
“And coach Campen says you have got to know how to get back to your fundamentals through that injury,” Linsley said.
At Central Florida, guard Justin McCray broke his ankle in a goal-line play.
“I was driving somebody and ended up getting rolled back in to,” McCray said. “Ankle went the wrong way.”
Last year McCray played through the second half of the season with an ankle sprain. Like Bakhtiari, he avoided a serious, season-ending foot injury.
“Mild sprains, you just try to tape it up and get ready to play,” said McCray, who suffered a calf injury against Pittsburgh but wasn't expected to be sidelined for long.