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NaVorro Bowman was told he would never play football again after knee injury

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The San Francisco 49ers linebacker chatted on The Ringer NFL podcast. He talked about becoming the defensive leader, and returning from his brutal knee injury. You can listen here.

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The San Francisco 49ers defense was expected to be a highlight in 2016 for a team that is in a rebuilding process. It got off to a great start in Week 1, but has struggled the last two weeks. They return home with a chance to reset and get back on track.

The defense has its share of leaders, including Eric Reid, Antoine Bethea, and others, but NaVorro Bowman is the veteran heartbeat of this team. He has been a critical component since entering the starting lineup in 2011, but the retirements of Justin Smith and Patrick Willis thrust him firmly into a leadership role.

This week, Bowman went on The Ringer’s NFL podcast, and spoke with their Kevin Clark. He initially discussed moving into the leadership role, and watching the younger guys start to emerge. However, the really interesting portion of the segment was the latter half in which he talked about his recovery from the brutal NFC Championship Game knee injury. Bowman tore his ACL, MCL, PCL, and meniscus, and he said that doctors told him he would not be able to play football again. He talked about some of the lows during rehab, and how things are different a second year removed from the injury. It’s a solid interview, and should be posted live here soon. For now, the September 30th episode is on their iTunes page. Here’s a transcript.

On coming back in 2015 without Patrick Willis or Justin Smith:

Uh, it was always good having them, but I understood that I wasn’t going to have them, and that this was kind of a stepping stone in my career. Because, when you come into a situation where you have guys that made a name for themselves, and made plays, and they’re gone, you kinda, the outside kinda thinks it’s not gonna be the same, we’re not gonna be as good, or he’s not gonna be as good. So, that was kinda on my mind; just to come back, and prove myself, and show the hard work that I’ve put in throughout the knee injury, throughout the recovery, but not letting that deter me, or keep me down, or making any excuses. I still wanted to come back and show that I could play at this level, even with going through that terrible knee injury. So, I definitely miss them, but the game changes every single year. I’ve always been told that no team’s the same any year. It’s always new faces, new people. So, it’s just part of the game, but we definitely had a heck of a run when Patrick, and Justin Smith, and Ray McDonald and all those guys were here. So, always gonna have a special place in my hear for them.

On going from younger option to elder statesman and if he consciously chose to do things differently in that new role:

In a way, but I think it took time. You know, you mentioned, I was 25, and now I’m 28, and most of those guys were on their way to being 30, and 32, and things like that, so, the younger guys that are younger than me, they started looking at me as if I was that age. So I kinda had to change a few things up on how I moved around, or my word choices and things like that, because I understood the team was much more younger, and they were looking at me to show them the way. I embrace it. Any type of challenge that comes my way, I always see that I’m going to get through it. That’s basically the attitude that I had once I realized that the light was going to be on me, and I was going to be the way, or the reason, the direction this franchise was gonna go. I never run from any type of challenge, I always embraced it, and I think I’m doing a good job at it.

On watching young players taking a step forward this year:

Yea, I mean, it’s just been a good thing just to see guys become professional. Guys understand that it’s their time to go out on this field and produce. You usually get some years to play behind a vet, learn some things, learn how to play the game at this level. But a lot of guys clock got sped up and they got thrown into the fire early. Such as me having to take that stand, and be the leader, be the voice of things. All guys had to make a change for the better of the team, but like you said, they have done a great job with adjusting and becoming a starter. That’s why I think of this team as having the potential to be a very good team. Because you see those things, you see how they respond to challenging situations, and they go out there and embrace it and try to do their best. So I’m not getting deterred from anything that’s happened so far. I think we have a really good team.

On Luke Keuchly winning 2013 DPOY, and if Bowman has told Kuechly where to bring the trophy:

[Laugh] Well, I think, real recognize real. I think Luke understands, he’s said numerous times that he respects my game, and thinks of me as one of the best, if not the best. I can’t harp on it, I know the work that I’ve put on, I know what I deserve, and at the end of the day, I do this for one reason, and that’s to make it to the Hall of Fame, and be remembered and respected by everyone who’s played this game at this level. So, that’s the award I really want. And if they give it to Luke and not me, then we’re gonna have a problem.

On full extent of his knee injury (Reports were ACL and MCL, his wife later said ACL, MCL, PCL, meniscus):

Yea, it was every single one of them. I was told that I wouldn’t probably be able to play again. She was there, she’s seen the process, times where I couldn’t even use the bathroom, or get up off the bed or something like that. It was some rough days. She wanted it to be known and be out there for all the critics to know, the next time you see NaVorro, and he’s back playing and doing the things that he’s done before he got hurt, just know that it wasn’t easy, that I was a soldier and got through it.

On what’s different this year compared to last year in his recovery:

I know how the knee feels. Last year, everything was new. So, whether it was the first game or the 16th game, there was a new feeling in the knee because the knee was getting back to playing 90 plays, or 80 plays I should say, week in and week out. Now that I’m in my second year away from the injury, the surgery, I’m kind of used to it, there’s no new feelings or new aches that are coming along. So it allows me to be more comfortable, and focus on what I have to focus on, which is the game. First year back, I was kinda focusing on the way to tackle a guy, the way to take on a block. If I could go make that tackle because I wasn’t sure if the knee would give. But it’s held up, and worked out for me.

On DonJoy Performance knee braces:

DonJoy Performance has basically given me access to unlimited protection and prevention gear, and helped me get through the rehab process with my knee injury, anything that I’ve needed. DonJoy Performance is a class act company, and make sure and go on if you want to pick up protection or prevention gear that’s best suited for you or your child. They’re definitely a material and gear company that gets you back out there on the field as fast as possible.