Lying in a hospital room, his knee badly damaged and twisted out of shape, Josh Sweat was given about the worst news possible.
“I’m 99 percent sure you’re never going to play football again,” he remembers being told. “And there’s a good chance we might have to cut it off.”
There are varying accounts as to the rank of the medical expert in his hospital room who delivered such a harrowing assessment. A doctor? A nurse practitioner? Whatever the case, it was a voice of authority -- a voice that still lives inside Sweat.
He recited those words while standing inside the Philadelphia Eagles training facility last week, four football-filled years removed from that moment and fresh off his first practice as a pro.
The questions that followed Sweat’s rookie camp debut were mostly about that braced left knee. Surrounded by reporters and standing with his back to the NovaCare Complex wall a few paces from the field, the fourth-round pick out of Florida State went into the routine of trying to assure skeptics the brutal injury he suffered as a high school senior would not hold him back, smiling the whole way.
“I just want people to know that it’s all good," he said in a quieter moment as he made his way indoors toward the locker room. "It still made me fall [in the draft], but it’s all good. It doesn’t matter. I’m here now.”
Making it to this point was once considered a near impossibility, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the injury when quality of life and saving the leg from potential amputation were the primary points of focus.
The fact Sweat was hurt at all was hard for his father, William Washington, to process. Sweat -- now a 6-foot-5, 250-pound defensive end -- was always one of the biggest kids on the field. He was typically the best, too, as his No. 1 overall rating in the ESPN 300 entering his senior season would indicate. Sweat was never the one who didn’t get up after a play, so Washington needed some nudging before realizing, “That’s Josh,” and hurrying down from the stands.
“Probably the most silent I’ve ever heard a stadium," recalled Richard Morgan, his coach at Oscar F. Smith High School in Chesapeake, Virginia. "No one really knew what was wrong, but the best player in the country is on the ground, not getting up. It was probably for about 20 minutes, and it was silent.”
The injury occurred on an extra-point block attempt during the second quarter of a Friday night game against Western Branch in late September 2014. Sweat’s foot caught in the turf as he was rushing up the middle. In that instant, a teammate barreling off the edge crashed into the planted leg, twisting it in a way that no leg should ever twist.
Sweat remained relatively calm and even had the presence of mind to think of his mother immediately after impact, asking that she be kept at a distance so she didn’t have to see what had happened. It wasn’t until after he had been transported to the hospital by ambulance and had the uniform peeled back that the full extent of the injury became apparent.
“By this time it was so swollen, and you could see his shin was away from his thigh, basically," Washington said. "The little ball had come out of the [knee] socket and it had moved to the side."
The major concern with a dislocated kneecap suffered from a violent collision is nerve or artery damage, which could have led to the worst-case scenarios laid before Sweat and his family. But further testing revealed no nerve or artery damage.
“They said this was amazing because the amount of force was like a car accident," Washington said, "and he didn’t have any of that.”
Sweat traveled to Manhattan that October to have his dislocated knee and torn ACL surgically repaired by New York Giants team physician Russell Warren, who emerged from the operating room bullish about Sweat’s chances of a recovery. Playing college ball was back on the table, and the fire was lit.
“When he first started rehabbing, we had to take the [rehab equipment] out of his room because he’d do them so much all day in the middle of the night. ‘You’re going to kill yourself, son,’" Washington said. “He had a mission. He was going to play. He was going to play as a freshman.”
Still in the early stages of recovery, Sweat toured campuses in a wheelchair during his recruiting trips. Though the difficult road ahead was plain to see, he was not moving off his goal. Colleges that intended to redshirt him were taken out of the mix. He ultimately signed a letter of intent with Florida State after the family received assurances from coach Jimbo Fisher that he would give Sweat a chance to earn playing time as a freshman.
He graduated early from high school and headed to FSU to continue his rehab -- a key, the Sweat family says, to his rapid recovery. He was back running by the end of spring ball and was on the field for the season opener against Texas State, where he had three tackles. He went on to appear in 12 games as a freshman, finishing with two sacks, five tackles for loss and an interception.
“The first time I saw him take the field for Florida State and start and get a sack and be dominant, it was a great feeling. I felt so happy for him because I know how hard he worked to make sure that would happen,” Morgan said. “He had just turned 18 and he’s on the field at Florida State and he’s making sacks against Lamar Jackson, he’s making tackles in the backfield against Alabama, he’s doing it against the best of the best, and to me that proved everything you needed to know about him.”
Sweat finished with a team-high 5.5 sacks last season and 14.5 in three seasons with the Seminoles, but acknowledged he didn’t have the college career he envisioned. Part of that, he said, is because of the way he was utilized, particularly last season. Sweat is at his best as an edge rusher, where he can make full use of his quick first step and good bend. He played further inside as a 4-technique last season and often had to read the offensive lineman opposite him.
Sweat was beaming after the first day of Eagles minicamp because of the system he test-drove. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz allows his defensive ends to pin their ears back and get after the quarterback.
“It’s so much better,” said Sweat, who posted the third-fastest 40-yard-dash time among edge rushers at the combine (4.53 seconds). “I can gain ground just in case it’s pass and I don’t really have to convert because I’m already on my way to the quarterback. That’s what I love about this out here.”
Position fit aside, questions about the knee linger: How much did it hold him back in college, and how much will it limit him in the NFL? A high-ranking AFC scout offered his evaluation of Sweat coming out of FSU.
“He can run and played well,” he said. “That knee injury affected him, but he still has juice.”
Sweat believes he was cleared medically by all 32 teams during the pre-draft process, but has no doubt the high school injury had an impact on his stock, speculating some organizations had concerns about his longevity. The Eagles’ doctors, though, were comfortable with how Sweat checked out, allowing the personnel staff to pull the trigger on a prospect they believe has serious upside.
“The thing that jumped out first watching him was his first-step takeoff. This is a guy that can really gain ground on his first two steps as an edge rusher. So he really pressures the outside shoulders and blockers,” vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas said.
“I can’t speak for 31 other teams to see how they had him on their board. We were very intrigued with his tape and spent time with him at the combine throughout the process.”
Some referred to Sweat as "Clowney Jr." -- after the top overall pick in 2014, Jadeveon Clowney -- entering his senior year at Oscar F. Smith. When you observe Sweat up close -- the long, athletic frame, the 34-inch-plus arms -- and consider the monster 22-sack campaign he was coming off of, it’s understandable why that fit at the time. Then came the injury, which altered his trajectory and has been an inescapable part of his story since.
Once heralded as the top prospect in the country, the expectations for Sweat are relatively low nationally because of the knee. He was selected by the Eagles 130th overall. His motivation to this point has been drawn from those who doubted he’d return to playing football. From here, he’ll add the ones who aren’t sold on his ability to complete the comeback.
"He’s dying to be an Eagle, he can’t wait to be an Eagle, but that drive inside that says, 'I wasn’t good enough to be a first-rounder;' it ignites another fuel in him," Washington said. "That drive inside that says, 'You don’t think I’m one of the best.' That’s going to fuel him for a long time.”