GREEN BAY – In the lowest moments of his 20-month nightmare, when his left knee was swollen and his mind was weary and couldn’t feel the football field further away, David Bakhtiari’s will was put to the test.
He had signed a $92 million four-year extension with the Green Bay Packers six weeks before tearing up an ACL on New Year’s Eve 2020, a contract he claimed would be the richest annual salary for an offensive lineman in NFL history before he put a pen on it . That was the time when Bakhtiari was invincible, the best pass blocker in football. His indomitable spirit was broken down in the months that followed, as setbacks repeated, surgeries piled up, and a recovery process that would take about 10 months nearly doubled.
For Bakhtiari, drug addiction was hell. The fluid in his knee would not diminish. His return date felt like a blind, moving target. In those moments, Bakhtiari said, he realized how much he loved the game.
No, he didn’t call it a career until he had exhausted all possibilities.
“Mentally,” Bakhtiari said, “I felt more like I should be pulled off my ankles as my nails gripped the ground as they were snatched. Because I certainly didn’t go out without a fight. I don’t know if my test is ready yet, but it would be more of a forced decision than a personal one.”
Bakhtiari’s long way back ended, he hopes, on Sunday morning. The day before, Bakhtiari met with Packers medical staff. They decided it was time for him to be activated from the physically unable to perform list.
His first practice came Sunday afternoon at Ray Nitschke Field, a week after the Packers activated PUP’s Elgton Jenkins and Robert Tonyan. None of the three are doing team reps anymore. That will be the biggest hurdle to overcome before deciding whether to play in the Packers’ September 11 opener in Minnesota.
“We’re just going to look at it day by day,” said coach Matt LaFleur after making it clear that expectations need to be tempered. “There’s no thought about Week 1 at the moment. We just want to see how he reacts, and when he’s ready, he’s ready.”
Bakhtiari, 30, did not shy away from high expectations. He said the motivation is “extremely high” for him to return for the opener. “There are a lot of ambitious things I want to do,” he said. Of course Bakhtiari knows better than anyone how quickly high expectations can fade.
Last season Bakhtiari more than once thought he was back. He returned from PUP last November, but the scar tissue in his knee made it not feel normal. A second surgery was needed to repair cartilage damage. He returned from that surgery to play 27 snaps in the Packers final with the Detroit Lions, but even then he wasn’t quite back. The Packers shut him down before he lost in the playoffs to the San Francisco 49ers last year, and Bakhtiari needed a third surgery to remove scar tissue.
The third operation forced Bakhtiari to miss the Packers’ entire offseason schedule, placing him on PUP until Sunday.
“It’s a shame,” Bakhtiari said. “I’d like to sit here and say, ‘It was so fast. Everything is smooth. This is great.’ But there were a lot of unforeseen things that I had to go through, and it sucked. It sure exhausted me, but I know I’m not going to stop. I don’t care. You can keep going in there, we’ll keep the engine running hold, and start in gear one and go back to gear 6. If we stop in gear three, cool What’s wrong? Okay, cool Let’s go back.
“That’s more of the mental progression that I had to go through all the time. It was when we started to step up, and then I thought, ‘God, do I have to go through this again?’ That was the part that just sucked, and I knew I could sit here sulking or take it day by day. Mugs don’t make my knee any better.”
Bakhtiari’s return from PUP should at least lead to a spot on the initial roster of 53 men. The Packers cannot put Bakhtiari back on PUP to start the season once activated.
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When Bakhtiari and Jenkins return, an offensive line of Packers that has been dominated by much uncertainty in the first three weeks of the camp will solidify overnight. Bakhtiari is a two-time All-Pro and two-time Pro Bowl roster. Jenkins was a Pro Bowl left guard in his final full season of 2020 and can play all five positions on the line at a high level.
LaFleur warned that we should not expect Bakhtiari and Jenkins to return to full speed immediately after missing so much time on the field.
“You’ve got to get the rust off,” LaFleur said, “and they’ll have to go through some stuff, but they sure know how to play the game. They know what to expect when they go out. Just their ability to communicate and see things, their experience speaks for itself.
“So I think there will be a lot of benefit if we can get them there.”
After Bakhtiari’s first practice, there was a happy mood around the Packers. LaFleur welcomed his left tackle to break the post-practice huddle. Teammates gave Bakhtiari a round of applause.
At his locker, Bakhtiari spoke for the first time since the camp’s opening day. Aaron Rodgers threw a pair of socks at his good friend, startling Bakhtiari.
“Knowing Aaron,” Bakhtiari said later, picking up the socks, “they’re probably dirty.”
His job now is to keep his quarterback clean. It is a responsibility that Bakhtiari has never taken lightly, but never appreciated as fully as it is now. “I didn’t realize how much I loved the game,” Bakhtiari said, “until it tried to take it from me.”
Bakhtiari said that if he stood on the field, fastened his shoulder pads, peace was brought to him. His world has been restored.
This time, he hopes there will be no setbacks.
‘Things taken from you if it’s not your choice,’ Bakhtiari said, ‘that was something I had a hard time giving up. Actually my knee says no. and this time I realize I don’t have as much control over my destiny as I want. It’s more like, ‘Hey, how are you feeling today, knee? Everthing okay? Are you holding up well? I just want you to know we’re in this together, man.’
“That’s been a special moment I’ve had so far, and I’m grateful to be back. Hopefully this is it, no more back and forth. Just positive, daily steps in the right direction.”