This one is special, DeMeco Ryans admits. Monday night represents the linebacker's first regular-season game since November 2 when he tore his Achilles tendon in Houston and, geez, even a 10-year NFL veteran who has twice suffered season-ending injuries can get choked up every now and then.
"I'm really pumped for this game and especially for me because this is a game that is as close as I'll get to my hometown this year and I'll have a lot of family and friends who will come out to the game on Monday night. It's going to mean a lot to me," Ryans said on Wednesday as he walked back into the locker room at the NovaCare Complex. "It's something that is special. It's truly special."
Ryans' injury last season was a heart-breaker: He went down on almost the same spot on the same field with the same injury suffered in 2010 when he played for the Houston Texans. Eerie stuff. Sad. Ryans was and remains the leader of the Eagles' defense and his loss last season was felt just as much on an emotional level as it was from a physical standpoint.
The long road back from that point to now has been steady, sure and laden with sweat, a few tears and a stadium full of determination.
"The first thing you think about when you have an injury like that is that you know you're not going to make it back during the season, no matter how far the team goes," Ryans said. "I came back on the plane after that game, on the way back to Philadelphia, and I was just kind of stunned. It was like a state of disbelief. I was like, 'I can't believe I had the same injury on the same field in the same area of the field.' It was so hard to understand.
"I knew my season was over. I knew I couldn't help my teammates, and that was the hardest part, if that makes any sense. It was way worse to me than the actual injury. I couldn't help this team win."
Ryans doesn't quite know what role he's going to play as the Eagles rotate three inside linebackers for the two positions – Ryans and Mychal Kendricks along with Kiko Alonso will divide most of the reps, and rookie Jordan Hicks may play some, if he's active – and it really doesn't matter. Ryans just wants to play. He wants to help.
He wants to win.
"I'm so excited about this team and the guys we have," he said. "I think we have a lot of pieces here, and now it's a matter of coming together and making it happen week over week. You just want to get better. You want to win games early and then peak later on in the season.
"That's not my focus now. I'm just taking it day-by-day. I know what it's like to have the game taken away from you."
The mental battle is maybe the highest hurdle for an injured athlete. The rehab goes as it does, day after day, laborious and lonely. On the field the player is judged singularly by his performance, by what the eye in the sky says. Is Ryans ready, on Monday night, to relax his mind and truly burst from his position and explode at the ball carrier? Is that the final hurdle? Is his conditioning there after minimal reps in the two preseason games he played?
Can Ryans return to the level of play he showed in 2013 and pre-injury in 2014, when he was a three-down 'backer who was consistently around the football, who called the defense, who communicated to his teammates and kept the fiery Kendricks in check, allowing the young linebacker to play his game in his zone and make plays?
"I think I'm ready but there's no way to know until you go out and do it in a game," Ryans said.
At least Ryans will be on the field. He watched the final half of 2014 and flailed helplessly at the television screen when the Eagles lost three straight games in December and saw their playoff hopes vanish.
That vulnerable feeling was what hurt the most. The teammates who relied on Ryans' play and his leadership so much when he was on the field played on without him, and Ryans couldn't do a thing to help on gamedays.
"It's rough. I'm upbeat and ready to go, trying to get the guys pumped up before the games, talking to everybody," Ryans said, "and then I've got to separate myself and go watch the game somewhere else. It's like, 'This sucks, actually. I'm supposed to be down there (Ryans was up in the press box area for home games) with my guys."
All of that is in the past. Ryans has his smile back. He's got his game on track, and he's here to help. Whatever the Eagles want him to do, consider it done. Ryans is helpless so much. There are no more tears.
Ryans will feel it just prior to kickoff on Monday night at the Georgia Dome. He's going to have family and friends in the stands and "his guys" on the sidelines. It's time to play. It's time to win. The past is gone. The future looks so bright.
"That's the thing," he said. "I'm here and I'm excited about what we can be. I think everybody feels that way about this team."