The trip was planned and booked. Kohler, Wisconsin; the American Club. Just a few days to relax and recharge. That’s how Bears tight end Zach Miller had planned to spend the team’s weekend off in early November.
“Something just nice and easy,” he said. “Just to get away for a little bit. Maybe get a massage, a pedicure, you never know.”
“Those plans got derailed really quick.”
Those plans got derailed when Miller ran a corner route against the Saints on Oct. 29, when he lunged for a beautifully thrown ball by Mitch Trubisky, when his left leg planted in the end zone of the Superdome and twisted in gruesome fashion.
His knee dislocated. His popliteal artery tore.
The agony Miller was feeling was surpassed only by his anxiety. His initial pain was accompanied by an unfamiliar force in his leg.
“I could just feel more pressure, a little more swelling, the leg starting to balloon up a little bit,” Miller said. “I could just tell there was something going on that wasn’t really quite normal.”
So, no, the graduate of Bishop Neuman and former quarterback and tight end at Nebraska-Omaha never did get that Wisconsin getaway. He instead spent the Bears’ open date under the watch of doctors and surgeons at University Medical Center in New Orleans, who scrambled to save his leg from a possible amputation.
Not exactly the American Club.
“Beautiful down there, man,” Miller quipped. “I was back in a corner room with no lights. Couldn’t even see outside. It was good.”
One surgery. Two surgeries. Then three. Miller’s up to eight procedures on that leg now, having barely begun the arduous road to a full recovery. Still, the veteran tight end made his return to Halas Hall on Monday for the first time since suffering that horrific injury six weeks ago. And he did so with his usual positive attitude.
Miller ambled through the building on crutches, his left leg encased in a bulky and restrictive brace. It was just last Friday that he bent that knee for the first time. “That hurt,” Miller said.
Still, for a player whose injury history since being drafted by Jacksonville in the sixth round of the 2009 NFL Draft has created a never-ending detour on his career path, Miller resists self-pity and the urge to ask “Why me?”
“If anything,” Miller said, “I know that I’ll be better when this is done. This ain’t the end of my life.”
Obviously, this injury setback has been the most severe, the most life-changing. There’s a very real prospect Miller never plays football again. That, though, he’s not ready to discuss. Or consider. Instead, he has adopted a micro-focus on each step of his rehabilitation.
For now, Miller’s last play was that sensational catch that was originally ruled a 25-yard touchdown. To heck with that inexplicable replay review from New York. Miller knows he caught that pass, knows he scored. The ball from that play — delivered to the hospital by Bears Chairman George McCaskey — is now being painted for future display on the Millers’ mantle.
Miller grew emotional several times Monday. He acknowledged the outpouring of support he has received via social media. He detailed his medevac flight from Louisiana to Chicago, strapped onto a hospital bed with his dad and wife Kristen by his side. He recalled his reunion at the airport with his three children.
“They were excited but wondering what the hell was going on with me, too,” Miller said. “Trying to peek in through the airplane windows and stuff. … I just remember hugging them and holding them for the first time.”