Those three words have to be the most feared words in all of professional sport. Doesn’t matter the athletic endeavor, an athlete being told their current season is over is something which is difficult for the average fan to comprehend.
Having a season-ending injury doesn’t just mean your season is over, it means you now start a lengthy journey of potential surgery, and lengthy rehabilitation. When you typically would be resting and preparing yourself for the next season, you are spending all your time just trying to get back to square one.
For the Pittsburgh Steelers, their players dodged several bullets this year in this regard, the latest being Pat Freiermuth’s knee injury in Week 18 which many thought was going to fall into the aforementioned category. Luckily, it didn’t. The first injury which everyone thought was going to completely derail the season happened in the team’s Week 1 win over the Cincinnati Bengals when T.J. Watt left the game with an apparent pectoral injury.
Everyone watching, and even Watt himself, thought his season was over in the first game of the season.
“It was difficult, especially in the moment,” Watt told the Steelers official website. “You think you’re done for the whole season. It’s hard to really compartmentalize what’s happening and why it’s happening in the moment.”
Luckily for Watt, he comes from a very famous NFL family, and he leaned on his two brothers, both of whom have suffered a torn pectoral muscle in their careers, for both guidance and support.
“It was a lot of calls with Derek,” said Watt. “I was talking with him a lot. He’s gone through that exact injury before and I was like, what did it feel like? Did it feel like this? Could you do this, could you do that? And same with J.J. because he had the same injury as well.
“From what they were telling me it almost felt like it was the same injury to be honest and I was thinking the worst. It didn’t give me any comfort in talking to them and seeing how their injury felt because it felt like I could do the same stuff they could and couldn’t do the same stuff when they required surgery. It didn’t really provide me any comfort.”
The days following the game were difficult for Watt and the entire Steelers organization. Everyone was waiting with baited breath wondering if their All-Pro pass rusher would even be able to return this season. After all, the Steelers’ record without Watt in the lineup is well-documented. Nonetheless, Watt prepared himself for the worst.
“There was a time frame I thought it was completely torn and I was going to be out the year and need surgery,” said Watt. “And then meeting with Dr. Bradley after seeing the scans, I started to see some positive news, and then another secondary doctor saw the MRIs and he agreed. So, within a day or two I pretty much knew I was able to come back and didn’t need surgery.
“It was terrible waiting, even though it wasn’t that long. But the news was good. Once I figured out that I was able to have a chance to come back, I was kind of on the road to recovery right away, and asking what can I do to get better?
“My first reaction was, ‘Let’s go, let’s get to work.’ How quickly can I come back? When can I start the rehab process? I was just trying to keep my legs active as much as possible, keep the right side of my body going so that when I could start to train my left side and my pec, that there wasn’t much lag time.
“It’s tough because you want to push and that’s always how I am. But in situations like that, you have to listen. There are so many guys in here that have our best interests at heart, and they always tell you, just make sure that you’re doing it right. And credit to (head athletic trainer) John Norwig and (senior conditioning coordinator) Garrett Giemont for doing a great job of overseeing all that and making sure that they protect us from ourselves.”
Watt’s recovery took until after the Week 9 bye, and the Steelers eased him back into their rotation. Unfortunately, the storybook ending for Watt and the 2022 Steelers didn’t pan out. After the regular season finale Watt spoke about how he believed the team was playing their best football and could have done some damage in the postseason.
“I think we were starting to play some really good football in all phases.” Watt said after the Steelers beat the Cleveland Browns at Acrisure Stadium. “I think on defense we were starting to really get that splash. We were able to stop the run and make teams one-dimensional and able to get after the quarterback. It was too little too late this year, but a lot to build on.
“Very proud of the guys in that locker room. Like I said on the field, it would have been very easy to fold it in and start to wonder why this is happening to us and pointing fingers and assigning blame, but none of the guys did that. Credit to Coach T[omlin], the leadership in the locker room, the guys that we have to be able to, when our backs were against the wall in the record and throughout games this year, to be able to fight back and play for each other.”
At this point, the hope is Watt being able to finish the season will result in a very normal offseason for the pass rusher. On top of that, the hope of the defense, and offense, picking up where they left off in 2022 by ways of winning four straight games and seven of their last nine. If they can do that, the 2023 Steelers season could be very bright, but they’ll need Watt there and healthy if they stand a chance.
Be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the Steelers as they prepare for the rest of the NFL offseason.