Jerel Worthy knew the moment it happened.
The Buffalo Bills’ defensive tackle has been out of action since Aug. 31, when he suffered a concussion in the final preseason game.
“I was pursuing the quarterback from the back side,” Worthy explained Thursday. “He went to slide, and I didn't expect him to slide at the time. When I came in for the tackle, he kind of disappeared. There was my guy Joe Powell, and he just caught me in the right spot.”
The blow left Worthy with a concussion, at least the second he’s suffered during his playing career.
“I definitely knew,” Worthy said. “I had one before, but it was like five years ago. You kind of get shaken up, you feel weird. When I got back into the locker room, I felt normal. Maybe a little bit dazed, but I started feeling like myself once I got up the tunnel.
“But if you have any signs of any type of symptoms, they're not going to let you participate. They're not going to let you go until everything is completely clear. You've got to go through a tough protocol to get cleared. The process is long.”
For Worthy, it was almost an entire month. He finally returned to practice Wednesday, and admitted the recovery process included some dark moments.
“I think after a couple of weeks of dealing with headaches, it makes you think twice a little bit,” he said. “It was a different thing for me. I’ve never really dealt with anything that's lasted as long as it did.”
Concussion protocol in the NFL can be a lonely place. “Rest and recovery” is the first stage, and involves staying away from the team until his signs and symptoms are gone and his cognitive and balance tests return to a baseline level. Even looking at a cellphone or watching TV might fall into the “activities” that could increase or aggravate symptoms.
“I’ve been chomping at the bit for a few weeks now, missing my guys, missing my teammates,” Worthy said. “You know, it's hard trying to be at home. You watch the guys battle, and how well our D-line has been playing and just want to get a piece of it.”
A total of 244 players were diagnosed with concussions in 2016, and the NFL’s response to brain injuries continues to be one of the biggest issues facing the league.
“Especially with a guy my size, you don't really see a lot of O-linemen or D-linemen being out for extended weeks,” said the 6-foot-2, 300-pounder. “We're seen as the bruisers, the big, tough guys on the team. When you see guys miss an extended period of time, they're skill guys, quarterbacks, receivers, guys who might inadvertently hurt their heads on the ground. “With us, everything up front is more controlled. So it was different for me. The team's been behind me 100 percent. It's just great to get back out here with my teammates and get a chance to continue to my career.”
Worthy said that even in his darkest moments, he never considered that might not happen.
“At the end of the day, you've got to have your faith in something higher than you,” he said. “I prayed, and everything is back to normal, and I've got a chance to get back to it.”
Worthy has been a full practice participant the last two days, although coach Sean McDermott said Thursday the team is still evaluating whether Worthy will be ready to play Sunday in Atlanta.
"He's a valuable part of this team, and it's good to have him back," McDermott said. "He put a good practice in today, knocking the rust off. That'll be important. He conditioned early part of the week, which was good. That process continues and we hope to have him available to us at game time."
Worthy returns to an NFL that has a much different climate compared to when he got hurt. Last week's comments from President Trump have produced widespread outrage around the league, and resulted in protests during the national anthem by a dozen of Worthy's teammates in Week Three. Worthy's brother, Brandon Smith, is currently serving in the U.S. Navy.
"It's a difficult situation for our country at this moment in time," Worthy said. "I definitely wish people would try to stop making it seem like the players are trying to come after the military, or think that we don't have any respect for our veterans. That's totally not the case.
"We're here together trying to build something special. We've got guys from all different backgrounds, all different cultures, backgrounds, races, trying to come together to accomplish something great. If the world can look at professional sports to see how we bond together, to put our differences aside to work together to achieve something great. It's not about black and white. We're all one human race."
Asked whether he expected to see the protests continue, Worthy said, "we're in trying times."
"Protests are uncomfortable," he said. "Any protest that has ever happened has never been a comfortable sight to see. It's going to make people uncomfortable."
Worthy isn't the only defensive tackle the Bills are scheduled to get back Sunday. Marcell Dareus practiced fully Thursday and should also return after missing Week Three because of an ankle injury. That's more reinforcements for a defense that ranks sixth in the NFL in yards against through three weeks, but is tops in points allowed, at just 12.3 per game.
"We've been able to put some games together," Worthy said. "Now we get myself back, get Marcell back. We're trying to build some continuity with our D-line. Guys have been playing well up until this point. If we get a chance to get everybody back and stay healthy, I think we can definitely put a run together."