Forty-four days and eight surgeries after he last walked into Halas Hall, tight end Zach Miller returned Monday, with black crutches under each arm. The Bears tight end hugged coaches and gave fist-pounds to staffers and spoke at length about the medical crisis he survived after dislocating his left knee landing in the end zone Oct. 29.
There was one thing he didn’t do: retire from football. His gruesome injury is considered by most to be career-ending, but Miller didn’t see it that way.
“For me right now, it’s just getting this right, getting healed up and when that point comes, make a decision,” he said. “Do I want to play football? What do you think? I’ve been a football player my whole life. I would love to play football. We’ll cross that road when it’s time.”
Could he play?
“It’s possible,” he said, smiling.
The last six weeks, though, have taught Miller perspective. His eyes welled over and over again Monday, listing the support he received, from his employer — chairman George McCaskey traveled to and from New Orleans when he was hurt — to fans on Twitter.
“I learned there are still really good people in this world,” he said. “Because there’s a whole bunch of negative stuff, 24/7.
“I’ve been impacted by love across the entire globe.”
Miller’s most recent surgery, on Friday, removed the structure that surrounded his knee to keep it still. He bent his knee for the first time that day. Still, Miller argued that his knee has a “pretty positive outlook.” A dislocation is defined as the tearing of at least two ligaments, but Miller said the “main ligaments that I’ve got are good.”
The first of Miller’s eight surgeries saved his leg. When he dislocated his knee, he severed the popliteal artery that carries blood to his lower leg. There was a ballooning pressure that felt unlike any injury he’d ever had. No one told Miller there was a possibility of amputation, but he sensed it.
“I started to panic a little bit,” he said.
As Miller went into surgery hours later, he asked the doctors to save his leg. Had the Bears medical staff not steered him toward the proper trauma center, the odds of amputation would have been even greater.
“A couple wrong turns away from actually happening. …” he said. “We were a couple minutes away from having that be real.”
He had two more surgeries in New Orleans and five in Chicago. Many, he said, targeted the hole that helped relieve pressure in his knee. Miller hasn’t talked to doctors about a timetable yet, but he’s looking forward to walking and, eventually, living a normal life.
Miller was supposed to spend his bye week with his wife at a five-star resort in Kohler, Wis.; instead, he was left in a corner room at University Medical Center in New Orleans, unable to look outside.
“The more and more I tried to understand it and think about it, the worse it was,” he said. “So it was just kind of, ‘Deal with it.’”
He flew to a Chicago-area hospital via medical airplane eight days later. Fifteen days after that, he finally returned home, where he’s since begun learning piano — he can play Garth Brooks’ “The Dance” — to stave away boredom.
He bought six new video games — and is playing “Madden” to get his football fix.
The football he caught on the play — it was ruled a touchdown, but overturned to an incompletion — will return to his home once the Bears get it painted.
Miller said the catch will “forever be a touchdown to me.” The ball, he said, will symbolize a pivotal point in his his life — one that he’s still sorting through.“I’m not sure what it’s going to mean or remind me of right now,” he said. “But I’m pretty positive and confident that when I grind through this, it will remind me of all that — what I went through, and where I’m at.”
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