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Clayton Geathers to return more than a calendar year after getting injured

Clayton Geathers plans to be his physical self when he steps back on the field after recovering from a neck injury. Darron Cummings/AP

INDIANAPOLIS -- You have to go back 366 days to see the last time that Indianapolis Colts safety Clayton Geathers played in a game.

Geathers' last snap came when the Tennessee Titans had a fourth-and-1 from the Colts' 19-yard line as they tried to drive for a game-tying touchdown on Nov. 20, 2016.

Titans running back DeMarco Murray took the handoff and attempted to run to the left side to pick up the first down.

Boom.

Geathers squared up and met Murray head on to stop him for no gain. The Colts won the game 24-17, but Geathers' 2016 season was over. He's missed everything beyond that, too -- the team's offseason workouts, training camp, preseason games and the first 10 games of this season.

"Yeah, I remember the play," Geathers said. "Things happen, but they happen for a reason."

Geathers was originally diagnosed with a concussion after the game, but the injury turned out to be much more severe. The third-year safety suffered a neck injury on the play. Geathers tried every viable rehab option to get healthy before finally taking the last resort of having surgery in March, which has sidelined him since.

But Geathers, barring any kind of setback, will make his 2017 season debut Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium against the same team -- the Titans -- that he was injured against last year.

That's why it's understandable that he has some nerves, even some uncertainty, on what to expect when he plays for the first time in 371 days.

"It's crazy how that works, but it should be a good one," he said. "I'm kind of excited for it. I don't know what's going to happen. We'll find out Sunday."

Geathers is a different person than the one that was injured last season. He got married in the spring and his weight is down to 220 pounds. One thing that won't change with him, though, is his playing style. He still plans to be a physical player despite sustaining the injury on a hard hit.

"This is live action," he said. "It's going to be good. It's going to be emotional, but once you get the first hit out the way, it's game time."

The neck is not a body part you take lightly, especially when you're a hard-hitting safety like Geathers. As challenging as it was for him to physically recover from the surgery, it was almost as challenging mentally. The closest Geathers came to the field prior to getting off the physically unable to perform list almost three weeks ago was being on the sideline supporting his teammates during games and practice.

"It's been tough; it's been tough. It's been a long journey," Geathers said Monday. "There have been some good days; there have been some bad days -- mostly good days. It was a journey. It's been humbling. To have the training staff with you, everybody, your teammates with you, so it's been a good process."

The Colts aren't going to just throw the third-year safety back into full-time duty against the Titans. Geathers will be on a pitch count for the time being while he eases his way back into a rotation with Matthias Farley, Darius Butler and T.J. Green. Geathers also gives defensive coordinator Ted Monachino the option of using him as a fifth linebacker because of his ability to play the run and also drop into coverage against pass-catching tight ends.

"He hasn't missed a beat from a schematics standpoint, communication-wise," coach Chuck Pagano said. "He knows the defense inside and out, and for a guy that's been out, [he's] attended every meeting, been involved in everything other than practice. He's been another coach for us, another set of eyes on game day.

"Physically, he's in great shape. He's moving around really well. He's lighter than he's every been. He's playing fast, moving around well. The only thing -- he hasn't been in game action yet, hasn't been in a live game yet, hasn't made a tackle to the ground yet."