Wife's daily health battle inspires Packers DL Billy Winn to overcome string of injuries
GREEN BAY - Billy Winn considered getting a job, leaving this unfulfilled football fantasy behind. His wife wouldn’t let him.
Each time Winn considered applying for an opening, each time he contemplated putting his communications degree to use, Brooke pulled him back. He wasn’t done. Couldn’t be done. Not like this.
For three years, the defensive lineman battled through an almost unfathomable string of injuries. There were the back injuries in 2016 that required constant epidurals to play through 16 games for the Denver Broncos. “I call that the epidural year,” Winn said. His last game that season came on New Year’s Day of 2017, a 24-6 win against the then-Oakland Raiders. Winn had one tackle.
He wouldn’t play another game until this season.
In between, Winn had surgery to fix his back. Then he tore his ACL, MCL and meniscus in 2017. After Winn missed all of 2018 as a free agent, the Broncos signed him back in 2019. He tore his triceps and missed the entire season.
Yes, Winn considered walking away from it all. He looked into an assistant athletic director opening at the University of California-Riverside. He perused job postings at UCLA. There was just one problem.
Brooke wasn’t about to let her husband quit his dream.
“She was like, ‘You know what? I don’t think you’re done. You need to keep going,’” Winn said. “I said, ‘You know what? You’re right. I can do this.’ So I kept going.”
That Winn now finds himself on the Green Bay Packers’ 53-man roster is remarkable. A sixth-round pick by the Cleveland Browns in 2012, the 31-year-old Winn originally signed to the Packers' practice squad in September. He has played in three games this season, recording three tackles and a batted pass.
He wouldn’t be here if not for his wife, Winn said. The inspiration he has pulled from Brooke goes beyond love. The couple met so late in Winn’s career that Brooke only saw him play one season with the Broncos, but something deeper motivated him in his return to the field.
Every time Winn wanted to quit, he couldn’t. He found the strength he needed to persevere through Brooke’s daily battle with lupus, an autoimmune disease that causes chronic pain and inflammation.
Brooke has regular fevers that spike near 101 degrees, Winn said. She’s in constant pain. To watch what Brooke has endured for almost 12 years, Winn said, made it impossible for him to sulk.
He owed her the same perseverance she showed in daily life.
“My worst days,” he said, “are normal days for her. Anyone else’s hardest day during the year is a normal, 365-day for her.”
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Winn said he struggled even getting workouts over the years. He constantly encountered the same doubts and uncertainty. Teams picked over his extensive injury history. They wanted to know if he was able to stay healthy for more than a couple weeks.
The Packers took a chance on Winn when they signed him to the practice squad in September, using new parameters that don’t cap the number of accrued seasons for practice squad-eligible players. Winn played three seasons with the Browns before playing one season each with the Indianapolis Colts and Broncos, amassing 71 games in his career.
His last three games came with the Packers, where Winn was reunited with defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, his head coach in Cleveland.
“I saw the list that he was coming in for a workout,” Pettine said, “and I was like, ‘Is that, is that the Billy Winn? The same Billy Winn that I know?’ And I knew he had been out for a stretch, and it’s just a credit to him, somebody that just goes through what he went through from an injury standpoint, just being able to work themselves back into shape and essentially will themselves onto an NFL team.”
The Packers like the stability a veteran such as Winn gives their interior defensive line. Pettine said Winn is a positive influence on the younger players at the position.
That doesn’t mean Winn can afford to get comfortable. At any moment, he knows, this opportunity with the Packers could expire. “I know I’ve got to grind,” Winn said. The continued viability of this football fantasy depends on it.
Of course, Brooke won’t let him slow down now.
“She’s just like a coach to me,” Winn said. “She pushes me, she makes me grind. If I’m slacking at something, she’ll call me out on it. she’s not afraid to do that because she knows how to make me better. She knows how to really get me in gear and back on track.”