Tony Bush peered through the lens of a borrowed camera from his section high atop Nissan Stadium in Nashville, where he sat alongside the visiting team’s family members and friends, and zoomed in to try to make out the number on the jersey.
It was his future son-in-law, Jordan Poyer, writhing in pain on the turf.
“From where I was, you could see the whole field, and it was just nuts,” Bush said this week. “Jordan flew pretty far after he was hit. You could tell he was hurt. It was pretty wild.”
It was Oct. 16, 2016, and Poyer, in his fourth season with the Cleveland Browns and first as the team’s starting free safety, had been crushed by an illegal blindside block while covering a punt return in the second quarter of a Week 6 loss to the Tennessee Titans.
It was his final game with the Browns, but Poyer, twisting in the grass, didn’t know that yet. He didn’t know he’d suffered a lacerated kidney, or that he was minutes from leaving the stadium in an ambulance, or that he’d spend two days in a Nashville hospital before being driven 500 miles back to Cleveland.
Poyer was in the final year of his contract, but he didn’t know the Browns would insult him months later, he said, offering a one-year deal for the league minimum.
And although it’s taken some time, he now understands, if not for that injury, he might still be playing in Cleveland, where the Buffalo Bills' safety will return for the first time Sunday to face his former team at FirstEnergy Stadium.
“I don’t like talking bad about other people,” Poyer said, “but this one, definitely, I’m hungry for. I’m hungry for this win.”
Poyer first began to grasp the extent of his injuries after being carted off the field.
“It was very scary,” Poyer said. “I didn’t really understand the severity of the situation at the moment. I knew something was wrong. I didn’t know exactly what. And I get to the locker room and I’m throwing up blood, I’m urinating blood, and so I knew something was very wrong.”
Bush, who was in town for business and attending the game by himself, likewise didn’t realize the severity of the situation until a family member watching at home called to tell him Poyer was being transported to a hospital.
Bush sprinted from his seat.
“I had to run from where I was, and I could hear the ambulance leaving,” Bush said. “I ran down ramps from level to level, to where my car was parked. I don’t even know how far it was, but it felt like 10 miles.”
His daughter, Rachel, seven months pregnant with Poyer’s child, was freaking out back in Cleveland.
Poyer’s parents were worried sick at home in Oregon.
And Poyer, in the back of the ambulance, was grateful to have his phone.
“I honestly just remember the ride there, just calling my mom and letting her know that I was alive,” Poyer said, “but that something was wrong. Because I knew she was freaking out. I was calling all my family members, just letting them know that I was on the way to the hospital.
“My wife was crying, bawling, and the whole time I was just praying that I’d be OK and that I’d still be able to play again. And when they told me my season was over, that hurt pretty bad.”
Poyer attempted to leave that same day.
“I just remember how tough – he got up and was ready to go, to leave the hospital,” Bush said, “and they’re like, ‘You’re not leaving.’ ”
The doctors explained the significance of internal bleeding.
“Mr. Poyer, it’s similar to being in a car accident at 45 miles per hour without a seatbelt on,” Bush recalled a doctor saying. “You’re not going home.”
Poyer didn’t need surgery, he said, but was told that had the tear been “a couple of inches to the right or left, it could have been really life-threatening.”
'A slap in the face'
Reports at the time indicated that Poyer may have suffered a concussion as well.
“I didn’t have a concussion, not that I think,” Poyer said, “but I had internal bleeding and they said it was serious. And if I were to get hit like that again, even less than that, I could bleed out, which was really scary to hear.”
Poyer was bedridden for two days in the hospital.
“I couldn’t eat and I couldn’t use the bathroom for a couple of days,” he said. “It was really weird.”
Once released, he was told he couldn’t fly in his condition.
Poyer recalled Bush driving him the eight hours back to Cleveland. But Bush said he wasn’t on the trip, that the Browns sent an SUV and had an athletic trainer take Poyer home.
Back in Cleveland, his Browns teammates were furious.
Titans running back Antonio Andrews, who delivered the crushing blow, posted a video of the hit on Instagram, captioning it with the word “Relentless.”
Andrews was flagged 15 yards on the play, but not fined by the NFL.
“It was just a post, just a video of making a play,” Andrews said in the Titans’ locker room that week. “Everybody else made it into something more than what it was. It was just a good hit — it showed that it wasn’t a blindside (hit), shoulder to chest.
“I’m sorry about what happened to him, to his kidney and everything, but (it was a) good hit, good play. All the fans just take what they want from it.”
Buddy posted the hit to his Social Media page? 🤔😭😭😂😂
— Jordan poyer (@J_poyer21) October 18, 2016
Not complaining about the hit... its football.. stuff happens... but dam.. idk why but thats wild to me.. good for him tho🙏🏾
— Jordan poyer (@J_poyer21) October 18, 2016
Poyer, on an expiring contract, said once he returned to the Browns’ practice facility, he spoke to then-Browns coach Hue Jackson about his desire to remain with the team long term.
“I went up to talk to him and told him I wanted to be there in Cleveland,” Poyer said. “Regardless of whatever happened for the rest of the season, I wanted to be there in Cleveland because I wanted to be part of the whole ‘Cleveland turnaround,’ ” Poyer said, using air quotes.
But he had lost weight, dropping from 193 to 180 pounds, and he had lost considerable strength, too, between the injury in October and January, when he was medically cleared to begin working out.
“It was so hard to get back into shape and to get back to where I wanted to be,” Poyer said. “And the first couple of days, I was like, ‘Dude, what am I getting myself into? This is crazy.’ I could barely lift 135 on the bench. I couldn’t even do it four times. I was so weak. It was crazy.
“From January all the way up through OTAs and summer, I just grinded. That’s what the offseason is, but this was something different.”
Poyer’s daughter, Aliyah, was born on Dec. 30, 2017, offering him an additional surge of motivation to get back into football shape and provide for his family.
But on the eve of free agency, Poyer said, he was taken aback by the Browns’ paltry offer.
“When I realized they didn’t want to sign me back – they offered me a year deal for, like, league minimum – it was kind of a slap in the face,” Poyer said. “All the hard work that I put in there, all the ups and downs I went through, and I was finally starting. I was playing well, too.
“It is a business, but there’s always that feeling inside of you like, ‘Dang, am I not good enough to be on this 2-14 team?' You know?”
Jackson, reached by phone on Friday, called Poyer one of the “harder workers” and an “emerging leader” on that team and said the organization’s decision to offer the safety a lowball contract was an obvious mistake.
“He was one of the guys that I really thought had a tremendous future ahead of him,” Jackson said. “He was a very young, talented player who had ball skills, range, tenacity, toughness. He was very bright. He had football IQ. You could just tell he understood the game and was going to play it at a high level.
“I don’t know the particulars of the contract, but what I learned after it was over was that he had received a better contract offer in Buffalo than in Cleveland. And if that’s what we offered him, then shame on us. He was a very talented player, and that has proven out.”
The Bills offered Poyer a four-year, $13 million contract on the first day of free agency, pairing him with safety Micah Hyde, who the Green Bay Packers declined to re-sign.
Weeks later, the Bills further bolstered their secondary, using a first-round pick on cornerback Tre’Davious White.
Bills coach Sean McDermott said he liked Poyer’s instincts, toughness and what he had overcome, and he had insight into the player, thanks to safeties coach Bobby Babich. Babich, then the Bills’ assistant defensive backs coach, held the same position with the Browns during Poyer’s first three seasons in Cleveland.
“I just think that the people that have had those crucible moments, if you will, in their career or their life,” McDermott said, “and how they handle them, I think that really to me defines or is a sign of who a person is, from a competitive standpoint, from a growth mindset standpoint, from a determination standpoint.”
Poyer starred in his four seasons at Oregon State, leading the Pac-12 in interceptions as a junior and senior. He was named a consensus All-American his final college season and drafted in the seventh round as a cornerback by the Philadelphia Eagles.
Poyer was thrilled to don the uniform. He said he always looked up to Eagles Hall of Fame safety Brian Dawkins.
“He just played the game with no fear, and he loved the game,” Poyer said. “Guys like him and Ray Lewis played the game with a passion and played the game with emotion and played the game fearless. I believe that’s how you’ve got to play this game, because once you’re scared, you can’t go out there and play scared. You can’t go out there and play to not get beat. That’s when bad (things are) going to happen. So those guys just played fearless and I really looked up to them.
“I tried to carry that over to my own game.”
But he struggled with confidence after being hurt.
He wondered how he’d be able to approach the game with no fear.
“It was tough. It was really tough, actually,” Poyer said, “because I didn’t know what to expect out of myself. I hadn’t seen the speed of the game, it had almost been a year, and that first game I went out there (with the Bills) and had a tackle for loss, had a sack and had a pick.
“I was like, ‘I ain’t stopping.’ That was one of the most fun years I’ve had playing football. This is another one of those fun years I’ve had playing football.”
Poyer had a career-high five interceptions in 2017, including a pick in each of the Bills’ final three regular-season games. Buffalo went 9-7 and made the playoffs in 2017, while the Browns completed the second 0-16 season in NFL history.
“Was that the year they went 0-16?” Poyer said, smiling.
Poyer, toward the end of the season, was voted the Bills’ winner of the Ed Block Courage Award.
The trophy, he said, is his most prized possession.
“Mostly because it was voted on by my teammates and my peers,” Poyer said, “and coming off an injury, I didn’t know where my career was really going to go after that. I didn’t know if I was going to get another chance. And once I was able to start working out again after my injury, I went hard. I went extremely hard. Because I knew I had to still prove myself.
“And to come in here and just being recognized by my teammates, guys who I hadn’t even been around for a whole year yet, it was special. It just validated all the hard work that I put in to get to that point and it gave me a lot of confidence that I could still play this game at a high level.”
He keeps the trophy on the mantle above his fireplace at his home in Florida, surrounded by every ball he’s intercepted.
“It’s right next to my pick-six ball off Tom Brady,” Poyer said. “That’s probably my second-most-prized possession. They’re right next to each other.”
'Huge blessing in disguise'
Bills safety Kurt Coleman and Poyer, both seventh-round draft picks, were teammates on the Eagles during Poyer’s rookie season in 2013. That was Coleman’s fourth season in the league.
“I saw him when he first came in and now I see him in his seventh year and it’s just special to see how much he’s developed over these years,” Coleman said.
Poyer, who played four games for the Eagles before being released, credits Coleman among the players who taught him the right way to study film, which Coleman took as a tremendous compliment.
But Poyer, he said, is solely responsible for Poyer’s success, and particularly for overcoming that potentially life-threatening injury and his doubts and fears to reclaim a starting job in the NFL.
“It’s the journey that makes us all,” Coleman said. “Jordan wouldn’t be the person he is if he didn’t have to go through what he had to growing up, and I think while you’re in this league, there’s going to be journeys along the way. I think when he first came into the league in Philly, I’m sure he thought he was going to stay in Philly, and then unfortunately you get released and you learn a lot more about yourself.
“I think the hardest thing that us as players have to remind ourselves is the confidence that we have in ourselves, because a lot of times the coaches will doubt you, the media will doubt you, and if you listen to that noise, you’re going to start doubting you. And I think that the loudest voice that you have to hear is the one that you tell yourself each and every day.”
Poyer’s teammates, at least in the secondary, believe he’s the toughest guy on the team.
“He’s playing in the trenches and he’s under 200 pounds,” cornerback Taron Johnson said. “You know what I’m saying? A lot of people can’t do that. A lot of people aren’t as physical to do that against guys that are 250-plus pounds, and he’s holding his own. That’s why I would definitely call him the toughest guy on the team, regardless of weight.”
White agreed with his fellow corner’s assessment.
“For sure,” White said. “The way he comes down and strikes guys – he takes on offensive tackles, he takes on tight ends, he takes on fullbacks, and he does it with pride. You can tell his love for the game because he exerts it out on the field. He has so much energy, when he makes a play, he’s going to make sure you know it, because he’s going to get up and he’s going to celebrate it. He’s definitely one of the toughest guys on the team, for sure.”
Last year, the Bills allowed the fewest passing yards in the NFL.
Midway through this season, they rank third, and are eyeing the team’s second playoff berth in three years.
Still, Poyer knows how to hold a grudge. He’s driven by perceived slights, like Cleveland offering that one-year contract for the league minimum.
“I’m excited to go back to this stadium this weekend and play there,” Poyer said. “I’m going to be talking [trash]. We’ll see what happens, if I see [Browns owner Jimmy] Haslam.
“The other week, [Eagles general manager] Howie Roseman tried to come up and say hi to me. I got drafted by Philadelphia. And he [expletive] cut me on the phone. Like, he couldn’t even tell me face to face, ‘We’re letting you go.’ He had to do it over the phone. And then I saw him for the first time when we played the Eagles and he came up to me like we were good friends, and I’m like, ‘Get the hell out of here.’ ”
The Eagles did not respond to a request for comment.
Coleman said he appreciates Poyer’s indignation and how it fuels his competitive drive.
“To me, there’s no surprise he’s where he’s at now,” Coleman said. “There’s no surprise he’s been so successful. But to be honest, when I look back at my career and when he looks back at his career, he’s going to be thankful for those moments, because those moments made him such a strong player and person.”
Poyer has been looking forward to playing the Browns for more than two years.
“It’s been a game that I’ve kind of had on my calendar,” he said, “probably since I left there.”
But he said he’s grateful for how his career to this point has unfolded, including the blindside hit that ended his final season in Cleveland.
“Now that I look back, it was a huge blessing in disguise,” Poyer said. “I have some of my best friends on this team. And who knows? If that play didn’t happen, I could still be in Cleveland. You never know. But that play right there led me to being here and led me to everything that has come with being here.
“I’ve been playing well and I just want to continue to do my part. I know that I’m a good football player. I’m a damn good ballplayer.”