A back injury and subsequent surgery cost Lions defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike all of the 2022 season. A nagging back issue limited him as a rookie in 2021, and the roots of the issue go back to his college days,
Healthy for the first time in years, Onwuzurike had a good camp and preseason to lock down a spot on the Lions' roster. Maybe he can become the force the team envisioned when it took him in the second round of the 2021 draft.
In "Player's Tribune" style Onwuzurike wrote a first-person piece, the first in a series from the Lions called "Beyond." In it, he details his journey to get back on the field.
Levi Onwuzurike reveals stark details about his back surgery and subsequent recovery
Onwuzurike chronicled dealing with back pain throughout his rookie season, then feeling like he was good going into 2022 training camp. Then early in the first padded practice, as was reported at the time, he knew something was very wrong. Surgery was coming, and it might be a major one.
"I needed a spinal fusion in my L5-S1. It was pretty simple; the surgery could limit my flexibility and prevent me from playing football ever again. There are not a lot of guys who get this surgery and are able to come back to football. I had coaches tell me they had friends get this exact surgery and not be able to return to the game. I think it’s easier if you get this procedure in your neck. Some people get their cervical fused and they have a way better chance to play football. In my research, I didn’t see many players get what I got and come back. Most players get the microdiscectomy and they can come back easier, but that’s very different than a back fusion. "
Onwuzurike was able to get ok with the idea his surgery might cost him his football career, if it meant having a healthy life. He went into the slow, steady progress he was making, with the clear goal of playing again, then....
"The darkest it ever got was when I slipped at my house and fell down the stairs two months after my fusion surgery, which now thinking back on, I find pretty funny. There was no way my story ends with me slipping and falling. After I got up, I texted my doctor in a panic like, ‘Damn, did I just mess everything up?’ But the x-rays were good. My bone scan was fine. The metal and screws weren’t impacted by the fall. "
Onwuzurike wrote about the obvious mental hurdle of returning to practice this year, but after the first joint practice against the Giants he said he was over it. Reporters on the ground noticed how good and confident he looked in practice, now healthy and not having to worry about managing ongoing back pain.
Onwuzurike's entire piece is well worth your time, so I'll link it again here.