On the first play of his first game in over a year, Nick Boyle escorted a Chicago Bears defender away from the line of scrimmage and watched Ravens running back Devonta Freeman zip past him. On the second play of his first game in over a year, Boyle pinned another Bears player back and watched Freeman climb to the second level again.
Boyle’s rehabilitation from season-ending knee surgery had been a long, painful process. On Sunday, a couple of big blocks was his reward.
“When I blocked my guy, to see the running back get through, it made me feel a little better,” Boyle said with a grin Wednesday, making his first comments to Baltimore reporters since he was carted off the field in a rainy road loss to the New England Patriots on Nov. 15, 2020. “Coming back from injury, man, you have doubts. And those are the doubts you’ve got to push away. And when you go out there to play, it’s like, you do everything in your power to get those plays right and do them to the best of your ability. But sometimes, you know, realistically, it doesn’t always happen like that. So I was thankful those first two plays went like that.”
Boyle’s 2021 debut, as he called it, was “awesome.” He woke up Sunday in Chicago knowing that he would play for the first time in a long time. He left Soldier Field with 32 offensive snaps in a 16-13 win and hard-earned praise from Ravens happy to have a beloved teammate and one of the NFL’s best blocking tight ends back.
Said tight end Mark Andrews, a close friend: “He’s an awesome player, and I’m excited to have him back.”
Tweeted fullback Patrick Ricard, another close friend: “Can we show some love to [Nick Boyle] for his enduring perseverance to come back within a year to play again! So proud of him because I know how hard he’s worked to get back!!!! Love having my brother out there.”
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It was better to come back late than not at all. After sitting out training camp, Boyle returned to practice in early September, only to be placed on injured reserve less than two weeks later. Coach John Harbaugh said the Ravens expected him back in about a month. He didn’t return to practice until Oct. 20.
There was a lot to overcome. Boyle said he underwent two operations on his left knee. The initial procedure, which he called “the worst surgery of my life,” repaired meniscus, PCL, MCL and fracture damage. A clean-up procedure, which he underwent in the summer, delayed his return to the field.
Boyle’s hamstring was also ripped off the bone in the loss to New England. “The way the guy hit me, it kind of came through, and my whole inside of the knee blew out,” he said.
The magnitude of Boyle’s injuries, and his relative inexperience with the necessary rehabilitation, left him wondering whether he’d be the player he once was, someone whom general manager Eric DeCosta in January called “a backbone for this team.”
“When you get injured like this, you fight daily battles with yourself when you’re not feeling good yet,” Boyle said. “And from a mental aspect, coming off of injuries, you always think to yourself, ‘Am I going to be the player I was before?’ That goes through your head daily, and you’ve got to really erase that and just go to work and work every single day. Erase it and go and attack the next day like that. I have full belief that I will go out there and I will be how I was and I will be even better. But that stuff just takes time.”
Boyle’s willing to be patient. He sat out the Ravens’ Week 10 loss to the Miami Dolphins because he felt the short week of walk-throughs wasn’t enough to prepare him for the speed of the game. He was “a little sore” Monday, he said, but it wasn’t because of anything wrong with his knees. He just needed to get stronger, regain the physicality that the Ravens saw worthy of a contract extension through 2023. With more time, there would be more blocks. And with more blocks, there would be more smiles.
“I don’t think I’m there yet, but I think I’m getting better every single day,” he said. “It’s just a huge process, and I think I have a lot more respect for people who go through injuries, and serious injuries now with all the stuff you do every single day, just to get where you are now. But you see the light at the end of the tunnel when you start getting better. You start getting back out there, and things feel more natural. Not all the way there, but it’s just like I said: Every day’s a step.”