PITTSFORD - First came the backpedal, then the 90-degree turn, then the plant. Bradley Sylve's left foot hit the ground. Then, pop.
Sylve felt discomfort in his left leg when he started walking again but nothing too searing. When he sat down, grabbing his right Achilles then his left and feeling a noticeable difference, is when he knew.
"Straight Jell-O," he said. " ... It took the soul out of my body."
This was the day before Alabama's 2016 Pro Day, Sylve's own NFL Combine since he didn't get invited to the actual one. It was only a warmup for the next day's showcase when Sylve tore his left Achilles tendon. He was a backup cornerback for Alabama, a factory for NFL defensive backs, but a special teams ace for Nick Saban. Any slim draft prospects vanished after the injury, a tumultuous road to reach the league now lying ahead.
Saturday morning, Sylve twirls an earing on his left ear into place after Day 3 of Bills training camp, a smile spreading across his face and his injury fully in the rearview. He finally feels 100 percent, wearing pads for the first time since Alabama's 2016 national championship win over Clemson. Sylve likely rests on the bubble for a roster spot in Buffalo's secondary, but he's taken second-team reps early in camp. He marvels in just being here at St. John Fisher College, let alone making the 53-man roster after a year away from football.
"Man, it feels good to be back on the field," Sylve said, wagging his head in relief. "I’ve been out for a year now. I was just anxious and ready, especially putting the pads back on for the first time."
Sylve's road back began with a look into his past, at his single mother and losing his house in Hurricane Katrina. If I can bounce back from that, the New Orleans native thought, I can bounce back from anything.
Saban allowed Sylve to rehab at Alabama's facility and they paid for his surgery even with his eligibility exhausted. In the six months before Sylve ditched his crutches, his days were consumed by a machine that compresses thigh muscles, leg presses and hamstring curls. His mother constantly fed him inspirational quotes and messages via text and Facebook posts. "Son, God got you. Don’t give up. Keep on fighting."
Alabama hosted him at its 2017 Pro Day instead, and the former Crimson Tide track star impressed for the 32 teams in attendance. One showed particular interest, so Sylve grabbed his phone two days later, opened his Notes app and recorded an entry.
I'm gonna be signing with the Buffalo Bills.
He planned to fly to West Virginia on April 5 for the NFL's new spring developmental league. When his agent texted him asking for basic information to book the flight, Sylve's response went unanswered for three hours. His agent's phone had died.
When he responded, it was too late to fly out that day, shifting the plan to a Thursday flight instead. In the meantime, Sylve got a haircut in New Orleans. Right after the barber finished, Sylve's phone rang. It was the Bills, wanting him to be in Buffalo the next day for a workout. The note was still on his phone, and it became a truth on April 7.
"And sure enough," Sylve said, "I spoke that into existence."
Immersed in a secondary competition on a team in dire need of a better season from its defensive backs, Sylve prides himself on his grit and speed. "I just got that dog mentality, heart of a lion," he says. He idolizes Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu, for his tenacious style of play in the defensive backfield and how he bounced back from a debilitating knee injury.
For now, Sylve isn't too worried about the specifics of what it will take to secure a roster spot and how many corners Sean McDermott will take. He's just glad to be back on a field.