GREEN BAY, Wis. — As B.J. Raji walked to the sideline after a helmet connected with his right biceps in the Green Bay Packers’ third preseason game, he hoped the pain he felt was just a deep bruise. Unfortunately for the Packers and their starting nose tackle, it was much worse.
"The tendon popped off," said Raji, speaking publicly Thursday for the first time since being placed on season-ending injured reserve.
The extent of the injury quickly changed Raji’s perspective from preparing for his sixth year with Green Bay to wondering whether he had played his final snap with the Packers.
"It’s obviously crossed my mind, like, potentially I could be seeing my last games at Lambeau," Raji said.
The one-year, $4 million contract that Raji signed this past offseason was supposed to give him an opportunity to prove himself. A chance to show that he could return to the level of play he enjoyed early in his career that resulted in being a 2011 Pro Bowl selection. At age 28, a return to the 6.5-sack, run-stuffing Raji of old would ensure that he could cash in big before he turns 30. That plan had to be cancelled — or at least delayed — after Raji made the split-second decision against the Oakland Raiders to try to make a play by sticking his right arm out.
"We were hoping for me just ripping the muscle, and then I’m probably on PUP and I’m back in six weeks, hopefully," Raji said. "But it was a tendon, so that night was a tough night for me."
Raji had surgery on Sept. 2 to reattach the tendon, leaving him with a six-to-nine month recovery time. The only level of good news that’s come of it is team physician Dr. Pat McKenzie has told him he’s "almost certain" that Raji will eventually return to 100-percent health.
If all goes well for Raji, he’d be medically cleared right around the time free agency begins in 2015. It’s at that time the Packers — or some other NFL team — will have to decide whether Raji is deserving of anything more than another short-term, prove-it type of deal.
In analyzing his own future, Raji looked at the contract that former Chicago Bears defensive lineman Henry Melton signed with the Dallas Cowboys. Melton was coming off a 2013 season in which he tore his ACL, which led to signing a one-year deal in Dallas that could become a four-year commitment if he’s still on the Cowboys roster in 2015.
"It’s something I’ve never been through before," Raji said. "So, it’s like, let it weigh out and see what happens. I think it’s more important for me to get myself ready so if the questions do come, you can say, ‘Listen, I’m doing X, Y and Z,’ whereas opposed to you’ve kind of got your hands up, like, ‘well, I didn’t know.’"
Raji felt fortunate this is his first serious injury in 14 years of playing football, dating back to his high school days in New Jersey. It could be that track record of durability that helps convince some team next offseason that Raji will age well as an NFL player.
"I believe the way that I’m built, No. 1, and just the way my body holds up physically, the type of work I do in the offseason, I can play a number of more years," Raji said, adding that this injury was just "an anomaly" for him.
But everything was lining up so well for Raji before the injury. He was given the green light by Green Bay’s coaching staff to make a permanent move back to the nose tackle position that he liked and at which he’d done his best career work. He seemed reenergized in training camp and determined to put recent disappointing seasons behind him.
"Coming back in, I was expecting him to have his best year," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said.
I would love to be a Packer. But obviously who knows at this point.
For now, Raji has to settle for doing his best to help the Packers in other ways. Rather than go through rehabilitation on his own and collect his salary without engaging in any team activities, Raji has been at practices and is giving advice to several young defensive linemen.
"I still feel like I’m part of the team," Raji said. "I just want to travel with the team, do everything I can to help the young guys out. But ultimately, it’s like, as a football player, what am I going to do? Go away for like 4-5 months and just hang out knowing that my team is out here battling? I’d rather be around the team."
Raji’s allegiance to Green Bay now may or may not make a difference in negotiations next offseason. But, while it’s often the cliche response of a professional athlete, Raji sure seems committed to the team that selected him with the ninth overall pick in 2009.
"I would love to be a Packer," Raji said. "But obviously who knows at this point."