Corey Liuget considered quitting football.
The former Los Angeles Chargers defensive tackle began last season with a four-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs, for which he is suing his former trainer. Then, a year ago this week, he ruptured the quadriceps tendon above his right knee in a loss to the Denver Broncos, an uncommon injury that required months of grueling rehab.
“My wife was the one that kept pushing each and every day,” Liuget said. “Even on the days that I didn’t feel like going to rehab, or I didn’t want to play anymore, she was like, ‘Are you sure you’re done?’ She would always give me that one last question, like, ‘Are you sure?’ ”
Liuget, who signed with the Buffalo Bills on Nov. 5, will make his home debut against the Broncos on Sunday at New Era Field.
The Chargers drafted Liuget (pronounced LEE-jit) out of Illinois with a first-round pick, the 18th overall selection in 2011. He spent eight seasons there, posting his most productive season in his second year, finishing with seven sacks and nine pass breakups, both still career highs. But he hadn’t been that same disruptive force in years, and after being limited to just six games last season, the Chargers declined to pick up his contract option for this season, saving $8 million in salary cap space.
Liuget, 29, was the team’s longest-tenured player and 2018 Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee for his work in the community and with numerous charities, including the American Heart Association. In 2012, his son was born with heart defects that required surgery as an infant.
There was no guarantee Liuget would again play professional football after such a brutal injury.
“Not many people tear their quad off,” said Heather Linden, the director of physical therapy at the UFC Performance Institute in Las Vegas, where Liuget trained last summer. “It’s very uncommon. Normally, you’ll get the ligaments that tear before that severe of a muscle tear. It is very rare. I’ve probably worked with about 10 in the 14 years I’ve been a clinician, so I’ve seen it. But ACLs, I’ve probably done 500.”
Liuget was confined to a wheelchair for nearly three months after his operation. He said he spent six weeks in a hard cast and another six in a leg brace before re-learning how to walk.
Returning to play pro football at times seemed an unattainable goal, one he thought he might be ready to concede.
“Are you sure?” his wife asked, again and again. “Are you sure?”
“And I would just get up and go,” Liuget said. “And then I found myself falling more and more in love back with the game and just the process.”
With NFL training camps and the preseason in full swing, Liuget was undergoing physical therapy and strength training at the UFC Performance Institute, in conjunction with sport-specific training with his personal defensive line coach, Arpedge Rolle, at Five Star Linemen Academy in Las Vegas.
Liuget signed with the Oakland Raiders in August but was released Oct. 30 after recording just three tackles in three games. The Bills signed him less than a week later in an effort to bolster their run defense. Liuget has appeared in two games, and last week he contributed to the team’s season-high seven sacks in a victory against the Miami Dolphins. Liuget’s sack came late in the first quarter, when he gripped Ryan Fitzpatrick with his left hand and ripped him to the ground like a rag doll.
“Coming back off of this injury, it was huge for me,” Liuget said. “That’s why I kept the jersey, because I was like, ‘I’m going to frame this one.’ It’s my first sack of many more to come for the rest of my career.”
Liuget bounced up and offered a Fitzpatrick a brief bro hug and a couple of pats on the shoulder, a show of good sportsmanship.
But given all he’s overcome, Liuget deserved a pat on the back, as well.
“Everybody has their journey,” Rolle said, “and unless you take the time to stop and learn his journey, you don’t appreciate, really, what that sack meant.”
‘A lot of agony and pain’
Liuget said the Bills initially tried to bring him in for a visit early in free agency in March, but he wasn’t ready.
“I really wanted to wait until my injury was at a better state, because at that time I couldn’t even bend my knee,” Liuget said. “I went from a straight-legged cast for six weeks to a straight-legged knee brace for six weeks, so around that time I was barely even able to walk. I didn’t want to take visits like that.”
Liuget said he began his physical therapy in California with simple range of motion exercises, learning how to bend, squat and lunge.
“It was very painful,” Liuget said, “just because of the stiffness and the scar tissue and all the blood that’s just sitting there. And your knee is not moving. It was terrible. I had to crank my knee to have to bend my knee forcefully sometimes. And if you do it too hard, you can rip the tendon and then have to get the whole procedure over again. It was tough. I had to take it step by step. It was a very slow, slow rehab.”
In mid-June, Liuget moved his training to Vegas, leaving his wife and two daughters in San Diego.
It began with Linden at the UFC Performance Institute and later incorporated Rolle, a former University of Florida defensive tackle turned coach who he had begun working out with a year earlier.
The rehab and workouts lasted about four hours each day.
Linden said Liuget had a huge strength deficit, about 60% to 70% weaker on his right side compared to his left. She explained that recovery from a ruptured quadriceps is much different than a torn ligament.
“When you have an injury like this and they have to reattach what was already there, it is way different than just going in and getting a knee reconstruction,” Linden said, “because you’re working with the tissues that tore. You’re changing the connective tissue, the way it’s aligning. You have to really work with the tissue quality, make sure the tissue can get to the end ranges that he’s going to need and get that flexibility and that flexion so he can start and stop really easily.
“It’s a really tough injury to come back from. A lot of athletes with this injury don’t ever come back.”
Rolle said that once Liuget was able to run, they focused on his losing weight to take pressure off his knee.
This included dietary restrictions, and Liuget dropped from about 320 pounds to 295.
They also focused on load-bearing exercises, because he plays on the interior of the defensive line and must withstand double teams.
“It was a lot of agony and pain he had to deal with daily,” Rolle said. “Even having to separate from his family a little bit to kind of get away to train and just commit himself. That was tough in itself.”
The mental aspect was an additional hurdle.
“It took a lot of psychological discussions that we had to have to kind of break that mental wall, to go ahead and push yourself and know it’s going to be OK,” Rolle said. “You’re walking on two feet, but mentally you’re still in that wheelchair because you’re afraid to push it, because you’re afraid to go back to that pain.
“Once we got through that and identified that that was also going to be a challenge – it wasn’t offensive linemen he was going to go against, it was himself – once he was able to mentally understand that ‘I’ve got to defeat myself,’ then you started to really see him push himself.”
The first to call
Liuget waited until late summer before he began visiting NFL teams. Linden had performed isokinetic strength testing, the same tests that NFL teams use to determine whether an athlete can return to the field, she said, and found flaws.
“We needed him to get a little bit stronger in some areas before he got in front of NFL teams, just in case,” Linden said.
“He’s like, ‘You guys are so picky. They’re not going to ask me to do that.’
“I’m like, ‘Just in case, you have to be ready for anything. If they tell you to stand on your damn head, you’ve got to stand on your damn head.’
“So we kept him about two more weeks longer than he initially planned to, just so that we made sure all of our T’s were crossed, our I’s were dotted and there wasn’t anything that a team would ask him to do and he wouldn’t be able to function.”
Once healthier, Liuget reportedly visited several teams, including the Arizona Cardinals, Jacksonville Jaguars, Seattle Seahawks, New York Giants and Miami Dolphins, where he first met Fitzpatrick.
“I took trips, but nobody wanted to sign me,” Liuget said. “Everyone was like, ‘We’ll see you back here in a couple of weeks or a couple of months. We don’t think you’re ready yet.’ I was still rehabbing.”
Liuget hadn’t been a major difference-maker in several years, but he had been playing well last season before his injury, recording 14 tackles and 1½ sacks in six games.
“Last year was my best year ever as a pro. For real,” Liuget said. “That was my best year as a pro. If you go look at the film last year, you can see how just explosive and active I was. I was very disruptive.”
He credits Rolle for the success.
“He helped me out phenomenally with taking my game to the next level, and it was showing last year on the film,” Liuget said.
Liuget eventually signed with the Raiders but played sparingly and was released.
He said he holds no grudge.
“I knew someone was going to call me,” Liuget said. “I packed my car up and went right to San Diego. I’m still thankful to the Raiders organization for giving me a legit shot. They were the first team that went ahead and signed me.”
Liuget joined the Bills, he said, because they were the first to call. The Green Bay Packers and Houston Texans also expressed interest, he said.
A familiar face
Once Liuget arrived in Orchard Park, the only teammate he knew was defensive end Trent Murphy.
They had worked out together in Arizona under trainer Ian Danney, whom Liuget is now suing for allegedly – and unbeknownst to Liuget, he said – injecting him with the banned substance that led to his suspension. Danney denies the allegations.
The particulars of the lawsuit have been well-documented by national media.
“I got a letter in my locker from the NFL and I immediately called him and the people in my support staff,” Liuget said. “I was just heartbroken, and for quite a while I didn’t believe that he would do something to harm me, to get me in trouble. And then as the process started happening, I just got to wrapping my head around it more and more and I was just like, ‘That’s the only way.’ You know?
“I definitely put him at fault, but I also have to take some responsibility because I’m liable, still, through the NFL.”
Liuget said the lawsuit and his push to continue playing have nothing to do with money.
He signed a one-year contract for $437,000 with the Bills, and he has earned about $43 million in has career, according to spotrac.com.
“I’ve got plenty,” Liuget said. “I’ve got enough money to retire. I don’t need football right now. But I love the game. I love the process.”
Murphy, who also served a four-game PED suspension while with the Washington Redskins, declined to answer questions about the trainer and wants nothing to do with the lawsuit. But he did discuss Liuget’s addition to the team.
“It was unexpected to see him sitting in the D-line room, just because he’s a veteran,” Murphy said. “It’s not always a nine-year vet shows up in your room midseason like that. He’s super talented. He can help us, for sure. He had some disruption in the last game. I think he’s still kind of getting a hang of the defense, but he’s a professional.”
Liuget said the defensive linemen have welcomed him with open arms. He said he sees a bit of himself in rookie first-round defensive tackle Ed Oliver and that veterans Jordan Phillips and Star Lotulelei have been especially helpful in getting him acclimated with the scheme.
Liuget, in turn, has helped his new teammates with their technique.
“How he got his sack this past weekend was really impressive,” Phillips said. “He has quick hands and the way he beat the guy the way he did was really impressive.”
The only other familiar face upon his arrival, besides Murphy, was center Mitch Morse.
They were AFC West rivals when Morse played for the Kansas City Chiefs.
“My first ever sack in the NFL was given up to Corey Liuget,” Morse said. “It’s a kind of cool full-circle thing. It wasn’t awesome at the time, but it was a learning experience and it’s a testament to how he’s a good player.
“I remember we’d have specific game plans for him in Kansas City when I was younger. He was a first-rounder for a reason. He’s put eight really solid years in San Diego and Los Angeles and we’re glad to have him. If anything, he’s a veteran presence and a guy who goes to work and does his job and makes you better.”
‘A different speed’
Liuget acknowledges he’s not the player he used to be. Some days, he feels fantastic. Other times, he’s sore and achy.
“You just make the best of your good days and the bad days, you just get through it,” Liuget said. “I’m just learning how to play the game of football at a different speed, because I’m not myself like I was last year. I’m playing the game a different way now, like a real true older guy.
“It’s just the nature of it, but I feel good. I’m still able to make plays, which is a great thing, and that’s what I think will keep me in the league, as long as I can make a couple of plays here and there.”
Liuget is living out of a suitcase in a hotel room in Orchard Park.
“I don’t mind,” Liuget said. “I was doing it in Oakland, too. It turns out perfect. My room gets service; the sheets are changed every day. I’m not worried. I’ve got free internet, free cable. What do I want for, besides my family?”
Liuget said he FaceTimes with his son every day. Corey Jr., his oldest child from a previous relationship, is 7 and lives in Miami.
“I don’t know if he’s going to be an astronaut or an oceanographer, but he’s a very smart and bright kid,” Liuget said.
He’s smart enough and old enough to understand that his dad was hurting.
“I just pretty much told him that this came from work and it was just an injury that happened, it was an accident on the football field, and he understood it,” Liuget said. “He shied away from wanting to play football for a little bit, but after watching me come back and keep working through the injury, and now he sees where I’m at – because he was at the game in Miami when we played the Dolphins – he plays football now, too. He’s not afraid anymore. I told him, ‘Don’t be afraid to play. Just understand it’s a part of the game.’”
Liuget’s wife, Faven, and daughters, 6-year-old Eden and 4-year-old Eva, are traveling from San Diego to Buffalo on Friday and plan to stay until Wednesday, when they’ll fly to Dallas to see Liuget play against the Cowboys on Thanksgiving.
“I’m going to enjoy them, and we’re going to find some things to do here in Buffalo and hang out,” Liuget said.
He and his wife are expecting their third child in May.
“I’m doing this for my family and I’m just doing it for myself, too,” Liuget said about his return to football. “It’s important that I came back and just finished this thing the right way. If I’d have gave up, I think I’d be sitting and questioning and watching. Like, ‘Damn. These guys are out there playing while I’m home and I know I can still play better than most of them.’
“It feels to be back here doing it the right way.”