The first game of a new CFL season may have never meant more to the Eskimos Ryan King than it will Thursday night.
When he runs out on the artificial turf at Winnipeg’s Investors Group Field, it’ll mark the first time the 32-year-old long snapper has played in a game since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his right knee while making a special teams tackle against the BC Lions on July 28, 2017.
“I’m ready to go,” he said. “I’m confident. I feel happy. I feel good. There’s really no negative emotions at all going in there, so I’m just excited to be back.”
But there will be some strong emotions to deal with because “not that long ago I was sitting in a hospital bed and I was pretty banged up.”
As devastating as the injury was for King – he also broke his kneecap, suffered some meniscus cartilage damage and had a hamstring tendon removed from the same leg to be used in the reconstructive surgery of the ACL “so I got almost the whole meal deal” – he found a way to turn it into a positive.
“It basically changed my entire life,” he explained. “It allowed me to change a lot of the things that I’ve been doing. I got to rebuild pretty much from the ground up again and I’ve come back in probably the best athletic condition that I’ve ever been in at this moment right now.
“I feel like I came back this year much smarter, in way better shape. My diet is on point, my weight is on point, I’m snapping better than I probably have ever snapped. Now it’s just babying the knee into the first couple of games.”
The Eskimos seven-year veteran, who snaps the ball on all place kicks (field goals and converts) as well as punts, will be going all out as he always does in the earliest season-opener in CFL history – the previous record was June 15, 2004, for a game between the Saskatchewan Roughriders and Toronto Argonauts.
“It’ll be a very rewarding feeling being out there,” King said. “Obviously, that’s where we won a Grey Cup (in 2015), so that has a special feel for us. And then that being my first game back to play. That’s a pretty big positive for me.”
King destroyed his right knee last year in the same game that kicker Sean Whyte was injured.
“Somehow, I became the backup kicker last year just by messing around in practice,” he said. “I eventually got pretty good at kicking.
“I ended up having to go in and kick off a ball when Sean went down. I had to cut off my spat (the taped area around his ankle) so I could get my extension to kick. My responsibility after the kick is to provide last contain. On that play, (BC Lions kick returner) Chris Rainey broke the sideline and hit the numbers and I had to get in there to make a play. I went to break down and planted my foot. With no spat on the foot, my ankle snap-rolled and basically rolled right into my knee and blew my knee out.
“It’s one of those things that if you’re going to hurt your knee, sometimes it’s better to do one full surgery and repair everything,” he said. “I’m just happy that my surgeon did a good job and the doctors have been watching me day-in and day-out for the entire off-season.”
King said he’s been treated like a pro since the day he joined the Eskimos, “but being injured was one of the most professional feelings I had. Right away, you’re getting the best doctors, you’re getting the best treatment, you’re getting immediate physio (therapy) daily, you get to use all the new machines and equipment that most physio clinics don’t even have. So you have to find the positives out of negatives because there’s a whole bunch of negatives when it comes to knee injuries and just recovering anyways.”
He knew the timeline was tight to be fully recovered in time to play the Eskimos opening game of the 2018 season, but it provided a lot of incentive to work hard on his rehabilitation.
“Definitely, all that hard work is paying off now for sure,” he said. “We ended up getting cleared at about 8-1/2 months, which is about as early as we can get cleared with the surgery that I had, but I’ve got to give props to the team and my physio team and everyone that I kind of put together to deal with this knee in the off-season. Obviously, it worked out really well with no setbacks, no tweaks. I’m just super happy that it all worked out as planned and I’m back for Game 1.
“But at the end of the day, I’m mostly proud of all the work that all the people around me put in. There were endless amount of hours and extra work and extra effort that were put in by tons of people around me through the entire off-season. I’ll be more grateful that they’re a part of my life and that I did it.
“You have a lot of doubt in your head throughout a recovery process as an athlete. The people around you are what picks you up and gives you the support you need always. It’ll be more rewarding for me to know that we did it for them.”
He said accepting the reality of being injured is the “first hurdle to get through.”
“Then you are basically almost removed from the team. You’ve been in there for six years and, all of a sudden, your locker is gone and everything is gone and you’ve got a spot in the physio room now.
“I live in Edmonton, so basically I was able to stay in the locker room. But, for the most part, once your season is done, they send you home to do rehab on your own. That’s the normal procedure.
“I was at least able to stick around the locker room and stay in meetings and kind of keep my head in it, but there’s no sugar-coating knee surgery. It’s something that I would never wish on any athlete ever. There’s a lot of dark days. The tunnel seems like there’s no light at the end of it, but you’ve got to trust the process, you’ve got to put the right people in place that you trust. It is a long, long journey recovering from an injury, especially returning to play so quick.”
King said it always felt like he was in a rush to reach the next step of rehabilitation because “you want to not only prove to yourself that you can do it, but you want to prove to the team that you’re dedicated in the off-season.
“To be honest, it’s one of the things that means the most to me,” he added, “just proving to the organization and to everyone that I’m back, I’m not done. That’s a career-ender (injury) for a lot of guys and I decided it was going to motivate me and I feel like I’m back, honestly, in even better shape than I was even before the injury so I’m coming back on top.”
King finally got back on the field for the final two sessions of training camp last week and had three more practices this week.
“I’m not concerned about the lack of practices,” he said. “We run a pretty similar system as we have in the past and we’ve got a bunch of veteran guys out there and they are all excited to have me back in there, too, so it’s kind of a big, happy reunion.”
SHORT YARDAGE: Eskimos quarterback Mike Reilly was named the No. 1 player in the TSN’s Top 50 players ranking for the 2018 season. He was the No. 2 player in last year’s rankings behind Calgary Stampeders quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell. Other Eskimos on the list are: wide receiver Derel Walker (No. 20), defensive tackle Almondo Sewell (No. 21) and offensive lineman Matt O’Donnell (No. 44) … Safety Neil King will be the only familiar face in the Eskimos secondary on Thursday night with international defensive backs Aaron Grymes and Johnny Adams plus national cornerback Arjen Colquhoun all sidelined. Defensive halfback Forrest Hightower is also listed as a backup. Drawing into the starting lineup are national cornerback Jordan Hoover plus three rookie-international DBs Maurice McKnight (cornerback), Nick Taylor (halfback) and Monshadrik Hunter (halfback) … Newcomer Tommie Draheim is the left offensive tackle, joining incumbents David Beard, Justin Sorensen, O’Donnell and Colin Kelly.