One of the most miraculous stories this offseason has been the return of Detroit Lions defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike. After struggling with a back injury the first two years of his NFL career, he underwent surgery last October which coach Dan Campbell referred to as a “last resort.” Many, including myself, had pretty much written off the rest of his football career.
But not only did Onwuzurike find his way onto the field for the start of training camp, but he flashed in the preseason and made the team’s 53-man roster. Now, just two days away from making what could accurately be defined as his first “healthy” NFL start in his career, Onwuzurike is ready to share his journey.
In a new series from the Detroit Lions called “Beyond,” Onwuzurike penned a long article detailing the pain he was going through, the surgery he had, and the journey back to the gridiron. You should stop right now and read the entire thing, but here are some of the important parts.
All of his rehab preparation for the 2022 season was erased on the first or second rep of training camp
We know that Onwuzurike played through a ton of pain in his rookie season. It’s easy to forget that he actually played in 16 games that year, but what I’ll never forget is the way former Lions defensive coach described Onwuzurike’s day-to-day operations, saying after his 2022 rehab, the Lions defensive tackle “can actually sit in a chair for meetings”—suggesting he was not able to do that before.
Onwuzurike said he spent five months rehabbing to make the pain subsist and get his body prepared for 2022. All that progress immediately disappeared when the pads came on.
“Throughout my rookie season, the back pain gradually climbed, and I ended the year at a pain threshold of 7 out of 10,” Onwuzurike explained. “I seriously thought I entered Year 2 back at a 0, but that first or second rep in pads brought me back up to a 7. Starting off at a 7 immediately was an indicator that something was off, and trust me, the pain got up to a 10 that practice. The pain didn’t even gradually build up to that level, it just started there.”
Onwuzurike reveals he had spinal fusion surgery
For months, we’ve only been able to speculate the kind of surgery Onwuzurike got, and the unfortunate news is that it was a serious one. Most athletes who get spinal fusion surgery never return to play sports again, let alone in the professional ranks. And while making a decision like that may have been difficult for most people, Onwuzurike said his motivation to live a healthy lifestyle outside of football and the belief in his own ability to set and conquer goals made it an easy choice.
“I was content knowing that if the surgery didn’t allow me back onto the football field, at least I had my quality of life,” Onwuzurike wrote. “On top of being content with that, I was going to do everything in my power to get back to playing football. When you have that mindset, it’s hard for things to go wrong. And regardless, if things did go wrong, I still made my dream happen. I had a lot to be thankful for.”
He is past the mental hurdle
Onwuzurike admitted when padded practices came around again this year in training camp, he felt some emotional pressure and anxiety. But after he got through that and joint practices, he no longer was worrying about it.
“That first joint practice, I was kind of thinking about how my back would hold up,” Onwuzurike wrote. “We did pod drills first – run-blocking work – and I felt flexibility and durability in my back. After I got those reps done, I was like, ‘Alright, I’m good. I’m not worried about it anymore.’”
Onwuzurike is hoping to be a model and resource for others dealing with this injury
Given the rarity of Onwuzurike’s journey, he’s hoping he can provide hope and inspiration for others who may be facing the same conundrum that he faced so early in his career. Maybe with his help, they can come out on the other side, as well.
“Even though there are very few athletes who come back to contact sports after a lower-back spinal fusion, it helped me to learn that some athletes did return,” Onwuzurike wrote. “I hope I can be a resource to people who have the same issue. Players who are in that same predicament as me can reach out to me. It would be cool to be that resource and be that person they talk to.”