For four weeks, Haloti Ngata watched the Ravens play on television from his Utah home, grappling with an awkward feeling that he didn't want to experience at this stage of his career.
"It felt like I was retired just watching the games," Ngata said.
Ngata, who was suspended for the Ravens' final four regular-season games for a violation of the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs, returned to the team and practiced Tuesday for the first time since Dec. 3.
Afterward, he said that he felt great and is excited to play Saturday night as the sixth-seeded Ravens face the third-seeded and AFC North champion Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field in an AFC wild-card game. He also apologized again for his error in judgment that led to the suspension.
"I did make a mistake," Ngata said. "I'm glad the team was able to get us in the playoffs, and hopefully I can help them with this playoff run. I'm just excited and thankful the team was able to get us into the playoffs so I can play again."
Ngata, 30, said his suspension was a result of testing positive for Adderall, a drug commonly prescribed to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. The league grants therapeutic-use exemptions for Adderall, but Ngata did not have one.
According to sources, Ngata turned to Adderall earlier this season for a boost after regularly staying up late with his three young children. It's unclear if Ngata has ever been diagnosed with ADHD, or when he started taking Adderall.
Asked Tuesday if he plans on trying to get an exemption for the drug next season, Ngata said: "We'll just see what happens. Right now, I'm just focused on the Steelers."
Ngata, who had been one of the franchise's model players on and off the field, reiterated that he felt like he let the organization, his teammates and coaches, and his family down. The Ravens went 3-1 in his absence, beating the Miami Dolphins, Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns, and losing to the Houston Texans.
However, Ngata's suspension came at a time where the Ravens were battling for an AFC North title and a playoff spot. If they hadn't beaten the Cleveland Browns, 20-10, on Sunday and the Kansas City Chiefs hadn't defeated the San Diego Chargers, the Ravens would have been home for the playoffs for a second straight year, and Ngata would have had a whole offseason to lament his poor decision-making.
"They dealt with a lot of it. It was tough, the whole time I was out," Ngata said. "I just feel like I owe these guys, so I'm going to do whatever I can to help the team. I'm definitely just ready to be out there again."
Ngata was reinstated from the reserve-suspended list Monday. The Ravens were granted a roster exemption through Jan. 5, allowing Ngata to practice without the team having to remove somebody from their roster. However, coach John Harbaugh said the Ravens will activate him before Saturday's game.
"It's great to have him back," Harbaugh said.
When Ngata reported to the team facility Monday, he said Harbaugh poked him in the stomach to test what kind of shape that he was in. "It's always going to be soft," Ngata joked.
Several other teammates gave him more conventional greetings.
"Even when he wasn't here, it was tough for him," defensive end Chris Canty said. "We tried to be good teammates. We wanted to be there for him, knowing what he was dealing with, understanding how he was feeling being away from us. We just tried to hold down the fort. We always encouraged him and said, 'Listen, we're going to try to get in this thing so we can play with you again this season.'
"He was doing the same thing, he was always encouraging us, making sure we're keeping on top of what we need to be doing. That's how much he loves us and cares about us and just wishing us the best. It's always that communication between us. The relationship goes beyond the field. It was just great to have our friend and teammate back."
Ngata and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, his closest friend on the team, walked into the Ravens' indoor facility side-by-side for the start of practice as they usually do. However, in recent weeks, Suggs has been walking out to practice by himself.
That wasn't the only difference. While the Ravens didn't have a full contact practice, Ngata and his teammates claim that the big defensive tackle was running around the field at a much quicker pace than usual.
His game readiness will figure prominently this week with rookie Timmy Jernigan, who did well filling in for Ngata, potentially being unavailable against the Steelers because of a foot injury that he suffered against the Browns.
"I feel amazing," said Ngata, who worked out in Utah during his suspension and said he doesn't expect to be rusty. "Guys are yelling, 'fresh legs,' all the time, and I just feel like a young kid being out there and being able to jog around. So, it's just an exciting time, and it's great to be back with the fellas."
Ngata's suspension cost him $2 million — or the equivalent of four game checks — and also cast some doubt on his future with the only NFL organization that he has ever known. The five-time Pro Bowl selection has one year remaining on the five-year, $61 million deal that he signed in September 2011.
While Ravens officials were disappointed in Ngata, they'd still like him to be part of the team's future plans. However, they may have a decision to make with Ngata due a $8.5 million salary next year and carrying a $16 million salary-cap figure.
But Ngata isn't worried about such matters now. He's just worried about making amends on the field and taking advantage of an opportunity that he almost had to wait many months to get.
"It's time to turn everything up — it's the playoffs," he said. "It's an exciting time, and hopefully we can have a great week of practice and do well down there."