Kyle Long pulled back the curtain on NFL life Tuesday. And, fittingly enough, that curtain was beside a hospital bed.
There was Long with a glum expression, having wholesale jerseys traded his Bears helmet for one of those light blue, disposable medical caps. The image, posted on Long’s Instagram account, came with a sarcastic caption.
“Football is so much fun,” it read. With five butcher-knife emojis, the point was driven home.
Instead of preparing for a Christmas Eve game with the Browns, Long was readying for an operating table. He needed neck surgery to repair a herniated disk.
Wait … Neck surgery?
Before going on injured reserve on the Tuesday of Week 14, Long had appeared on the Bears injury report this season with ankle and finger injuries. His shoulder was also a known and lingering issue.
So when exactly did the Bears learn that the veteran offensive lineman’s neck had become problematic as well?
“Really after we shut him down,” coach John Fox said Wednesday at Halas Hall. “He had a lot of things bothering him — his ankle, his shoulder, the neck was a little bit of an issue. We didn’t know the extent of it, but now we do, and it’s been repaired.”
In another Instagram post, this one post-op, Long offered a selfie video from his recovery bed. Tubes were up his nose, a stabilizing brace was around his neck. His vibrant smile was still missing.
That photo came with this message: “1/3 done,” which would seem to indicate Long has two more procedures ahead. Fox declined to confirm that or specify the body parts that might still need surgery.
But this much can be said: Long’s body has been through hell.
Since the summer of 2016, he has suffered a torn labrum in his left shoulder, a severe ankle injury that required reconstructive surgery and a left hand injury against the Saints in October in which, Long says, his ring finger was dislocated in multiple places with torn ligaments and tendons.
So, no, those official notations on the weekly injury report — Kyle Long (finger) questionable — can’t fully encapsulate the struggle. That’s why Long took it personally in November when he became a target on social media of some frustrated fans and trolls who questioned his durability and toughness.
Asked by WBBM-AM 780 sideline reporter Zach Zaidman how he’d respond to such criticisms, Long fired back.
“I’ve done everything in my power as a Chicago Bear to help the team,” he said before the Week 10 game against the Lions. “I’ve done everything in my power to play when I shouldn’t play. I’ve done everything in my power to better myself as a teammate. And if somebody has a problem with my toughness, then (bleep) them.
“And if they have something to say to me, my address is publicized. You know where I work every day.”
That sharp response came only days after Long had been in uniform but hadn’t played on offense against the Packers. (His lone action was one emergency play on the field-goal unit when Josh Sitton was briefly sidelined.)
Again, the Bears only listed Long with a finger injury that week. And immediately after the game Fox did his starting guard few favors when he said the following: “(Long) was healthy. He went in for a play. We wouldn’t have suited him up if he wasn’t healthy.”
This is the NFL’s injury culture: severe pain, constant obfuscation, a seemingly endless cycle of grin and bear it. Right now, Long is caught in the teeth of it, in a suburban hospital with his neck immobilized and football future in question.
In a series of tweets Tuesday night, Long summarized his injury tribulations from the last 16 months: the shoulder, ankle, hand and neck. He has been damaged from head to toe.
“Now is (the) time for me to fix myself,” Long concluded. “(I) wanted you guys to hear it from me. I’m very excited about what the future holds for this team, and I’m jacked up about being healthy again.”
When that will be is anyone’s guess. No one at Halas Hall questions the lineman’s toughness or passion. Those are the qualities coaches and teammates most admire, the traits that will help Long climb this next recovery mountain.
“Kyle has always done a great job of giving us what he can,” left tackle Charles Leno said. “We appreciate him for that, for sure.”
Still, while grit, drive and positive energy offer fuel for the rehabilitation process, the body ultimately will have its say. And Long isn’t returning to a career in which he answers phones and does some occasional filing. His profession requires smashing into massive, 300-pound monsters at full speed, week after week.
On any play, in any collision, the next major physical setback could be waiting.
A severely damaged ankle. A mangled hand. An injured neck.
“You’ve got to be a little crazy to do this, right?” Leno said.
These next stages of recovery and rehab will certainly test Long’s sanity. Eventually, he’ll also have a major decision to make on how crazy he wants to be.
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