Finally healed from a career-threatening injury, J.R. Sweezy is savoring his moment

Some doctors told J.R. Sweezy that it was possible his back injury would force him to retire from the NFL. Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

TAMPA, Fla. -- After what seemed like an eternity, right guard J.R. Sweezy finally got to make his debut with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday against the Chicago Bears. Nobody was happier about that than Sweezy himself, who missed all of last season with a lower back injury.

Coming off the field and into the locker room, his menacing stare was replaced by a huge smile. He could barely contain his excitement. It had been exactly 20 months since he'd last played a football game.

"I forgot how fun it was, honestly," said Sweezy, whose last game was with the Seattle Seahawks, when they lost the NFC divisional game to the Carolina Panthers following the 2015 season. "I'm just so excited to be back in it and back with the guys and to keep winning ball games."

The Bucs brought Sweezy in to replace retiring Logan Mankins, signing him to a five-year deal worth $32.5 million. At the time, the Bucs had the fifth-best rushing attack in the league behind Doug Martin and Charles Sims. Sweezy brought the physicality and the attitude they sought.

But before he could even get started, he suffered a crushing blow -- a herniated disc between his L5-S1 vertebrae in his lower back. And it wasn't just any herniation -- the disc exploded. It's the kind of pain that will knock you to your knees. It's also the type of injury that can end a career. Doctors even told him he might never play again.

"Some people said that to me, they said it was possible," said Sweezy, who underwent surgery after joining the team. "Just with the nerves and everything -- you don't really know. But luckily it played out this way and I'm able to do what I love to do and play ball."

Sweezy continued: "It was the hardest year of my life. Coming to a new team, not being able to contribute, not being able to help out, not being able to do much of anything -- it was just tough. But it taught me a lot. I learned from it and I'm back now. A lot of prayers -- a lot of answered prayers just to get me back. So it's been good."

It was a helpless feeling watching games upstairs in the press box in street clothes, knowing how much he was expected to contribute. He also hadn't been able to bond with his teammates as much because he missed the entire offseason program and training camp leading up to that.

"That was Sweezy's first year so people really didn't know him," said right tackle Demar Dotson. "I think it was [harder] on him coming to a new place and not being able to play so he couldn't really like gel in with the guys. He kind of kept his distance a little bit. ... There was kind of like a little wall there that he put up."

Once Sweezy was cleared to practice, Dotson could immediately immediately feel his presence -- it wasn't just his physicality but his attitude, even when going up against guys like Gerald McCoy and Robert Ayers in practice.

"One thing about him, is he brings a different type of tenacity to the line that we need, a different edge," said Dotson. "He's always trying to find somebody to hit. If his guy drops or goes another way, he's gonna look back and he's gonna find somebody to hit."

On Sunday, when Jacquizz Rodgers spun his way into the end zone for a one-year touchdown run, it was Sweezy who took on 6-foot-4, 320-pound nose tackle Eddie Goldman. But that's not what stood out most to head coach Dirk Koetter, although he was very pleased with the job Sweezy did playing every snap on offense.

"J.R. loves football and it shows up," Koetter said. "It shows up in the way he plays out there. He competes hard to the whistle. It's not always the prettiest thing, but there are plays where it's late in the play and he is eight yards down field trying to get after his guy or get after a linebacker. He is going to bring a dimension to our team that can be contagious and [that] you hope other guys feed off of."

Offensive line coach George Warhop referred to it as an "'I'm going to beat the dog crap out of you' edge."

It's type of edge they'll need this week going against one of the top defensive lines in the NFL.

Was it worth the wait for Sweezy, to finally be back playing and to have an opportunity to make such an impact now?

"Absolutely, yes," Sweezy said. "It was a long, hard process. I just stuck to it every day, stuck to the grind. Got it done and I'm back to where I'm comfortable. ... You just have to believe, you have to have a little patience and just kind of stick to the plan, believe in the plan and see it through."