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EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ — The dreaded wagon. The courtesy clap for the injured.
New York Giants offensive lineman Nick Gates wanted no part of it. He had never needed it before Thursday night’s game against Washington in Week 2 last season.
Not before he heard his left leg go “crack, crack, pop” and began flopping back and forth as he lay on the grass at FedEx Field. The fibula and tibia were broken. There would be seven surgeries to follow and a rehab that is still ongoing.
The injury was so horrific that the NFL Network, which broadcast the game, refused to show the replay of Gates’ leg getting caught under Washington defensive lineman Daron Payne. The Giants’ training staff and doctors stabilized the leg in an airlift, and Gates was taken off the field smiling and waving to indicate he was OK.
“I’ll be fine. I’m good,” then-teammate Billy Price recalls Gates telling the Giants. “Get off your ass!”
It was an odd reaction given the circumstances and the severity of the injury – unless you know Gates.
“I’m fine,” Gates recalled telling his mother and brother during a FaceTime call shortly after he was taken off the field. “I broke my leg. It snapped in half. But I’ll be fine.”
Gates smiled on that call, while his mother, Sonya, was hysterical, and his older brother, Matt, cried for the first time Nick remembers. It was Gates — pre-pain meds — who provided reassurance for his family as he was being prepped for a trip to Virginia’s Inova Fairfax Hospital with his leg and career in jeopardy.
“That’s exactly what he said: ‘Mom, I’m fine. I’m fine. Stop crying,'” Sonya told ESPN. “He told his brother, ‘Matt, I’m good. I’m good’.”
When he was in the ambulance, he could feel – and hear – the bones in his injured leg rubbing together.
“‘Hey, are you trying to hit all the holes or what?’ he asked the driver with a laugh.
It was like that for most of the first weeks of his recovery. Gates, who started three games in 2019 and all 16 in 2020, took it all in stride like he was dealing with a sprained ankle. He spent most of that time with his leg elevated—either in a hospital room or at his home in New Jersey—and his mother by his side.
There was a moment he feared losing his leg. There was an operation in the spring when the doctors removed the rod and had to clean the bone. Doctors have assured Gates that he will return to the field, but it is unclear when that will happen or how effective he will be when he does.
“This guy has rehabbed unbelievable,” coach Brian Daboll said. “He’s made a lot of progress. Where he is and when he’ll be ready, I couldn’t answer that right now.”
Gates was placed on the physically unable to perform list this week when the Giants opened training camp, but his mindset remains positive.
“What does it do for me to be negative about this? … What, do I want to feel sorry for it? It’s broken,” said Gates, who in a 45-minute interview with ESPN casually talked about all the ugly details. “I’m not supposed to be down in the dumps. It’s no use.”
‘He never once complained’
From the moment he was driven off the field until now, Gates’ approach has been inspiring and perfectly on-brand according to those who know him best.
“The guy saw his leg turn the other way… He had multiple surgeries, he never once complained,” said his agent, Jon Perzley of Sportsstars. “It’s just Nick.”
Gates, 26, says his leg broke in the best possible way. Right in the middle.
“Toughest dude on planet Earth” is how Perzley described Gates the week after the injury.
Sonya said: “Nicholas is very tough. There are only three times in his life that he has ever told me that something is hurt. I know when he says that word [‘hurt’] I better pay attention.”
The first was when he broke his hand at age 6. It required surgery and involved screws in the hand. And there was the appendicitis when he had COVID-19. The third time happened early in this recovery when Gates’ leg swelled too much and required a procedure called a fasciotomy. Doctors told him that losing his leg was among the possibilities if it swelled too long.
As he waited for his doctor to come out of surgery, Gates cried.
“[Losing my leg] was in play,” he said. “But then I asked a question: ‘Should I be concerned about it?'”
“No. You’re good,” said the doctor.
“I calmed down after that,” Gates said.
Always an underdog
His first surgery was on September 17, and the next day doctors wanted Gates to take a few steps. It was like giving a drag racer the green light. A few steps? He made the rounds and posted a video of himself on social media tumbling around on the hospital floor.
Two days after breaking his leg and a day after surgery, Giants OL Nick Gates was back walking. Animals! 💪💪
🎥 nick_gates68 on IG pic.twitter.com/g5UPeSLbUO
—Jordan Raanan (@JordanRaanan) 19 September 2021
It was an ugly response from Gates, who at 6-foot-6 and 318 pounds is a tough guy in a sport full of them. He once started a scrum with Los Angeles Rams star defensive tackle Aaron Donald, and he always seems to be involved in pushing for a play or the first to defend his quarterback when needed.
That attitude has served him well on a difficult path from undrafted rookie out of Nebraska (2018) to NFL starter to team captain for the Giants. Gates regrets not being there for his teammates for most of last season and vows to be there for them this fall.
His first question to every doctor: “Should I get back into that field?” Sonya said. “And they all assured him that he would.”
Gates started running in the spring and is finally starting to regain strength in his legs. There are still plenty of hurdles to clear. The leg is stable, but there is a difference between being able to jog and anchor to stop a 350-pound nose tackle.
There may be doubters who think he’s just putting on a happy face, but Gates sees his situation as just another career hurdle.
“I’ve always been kind of the underdog,” he said. “Nobody expected me to win the job in college. I won the job in college. Nobody expected me to be something like an undrafted free agent. I became something. I was a captain. I think it’s cool. I was undrafted and was a captain in the NFL for the New York Giants! It doesn’t get much better than that.”
And if he doesn’t make it all the way back?
“I don’t know if it would hurt me, but it would be weird,” he said. “I’ve never had a job, technically.”
The Giants will give Gates time. They signed Jon Feliciano from the Buffalo Bills this offseason knowing the challenge Gates faces.
“Coming in here, I was just concerned about his quality of life,” first-year GM Joe Schoen said of Gates. “The fact that he’s where he is and can maybe play in the preseason is great. Credit to the kid. He’s worked hard.”
When Gates returns, that moment will be special given the severity of the injury and the speed bumps he’s hit.
“I have no doubt [he’ll be back]” said Sonya. “I don’t think there’s any doubt in his mind either. It will be a great day when he steps on the field to play.”
Then the smile he had on his face while he was carded will make more sense to the rest of us.