Out at the NovaCare Complex on Thursday afternoon, Mack Hollins lined up wide to the right of Carson Wentz and ran a slant, and Wentz’s first pass of the practice hit Hollins right in the hands, right in stride, like it was supposed to. This was good for the Eagles to see. Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson missed most of last Sunday’s loss to the Atlanta Falcons, and they probably won’t play this Sunday against the Detroit Lions. Hollins stepped in against Atlanta, caught five passes for 50 yards, and it looks like he’ll start against Detroit.
Then Hollins lined up again, and Carson Walch, the Eagles’ wide receivers coach, stepped in front of him, backpedaling as Hollins ran his route, yelling, “Burst! Burst! Burst!” And this time Wentz’s pass was a tad high, and the ball caromed off Hollins’ hands, and Hollins yelled: “Aw, f-----g B!” Give him credit for that letter. He was conscientious enough to censor himself in the moment.
“Sorry about that,” he said later.
Does he often react that way when he makes a mistake?
“Yeah, it’s toward myself, because that’s my job,” he said. “Me dropping a ball is me not doing my job. So it’s more self-talk than anything. But getting it out helps.”
For more than a year, Hollins felt far more frustration than he did over that drop — and he had no outlet for it. A pair of groin injuries sidelined him for his entire second season with the Eagles, transforming him from a promising rookie out of North Carolina who contributed both as a wideout and a special-teams player in 2017 to a forgotten man last year.
It’s the way of the world in the NFL when a player gets hurt. He goes from present and relevant to invisible, as if he were James Earl Jones walking into an Iowa cornfield. One day, he’s day-to-day, and after a while, he’s gone and you’re wondering what happened to him. The player wonders, too. Hollins sure did. He was a fun story in ’17. Loved playing special teams and was good at it. Had a bunch of pet snakes. Caught a long touchdown pass from Wentz on a Monday night game against the Redskins, ran through the end zone, stood near a row of cheering fans, and flossed (the dance, not the teeth-cleaning procedure). Then he just wasn’t around anymore.
“When you’re hurt, you go in that dark place: ‘Am I going to get back? Am I going to be the Mack I once was, the guy I was at North Carolina or my rookie year?’ ” he said. “But the biggest thing is just pushing ahead and having teammates and trainers and family members who keep you going. You feel like you’re alone a lot of the time, but you’ve got plenty of people there.”
“I don’t want to make it seem like Batman or something like that,” said Hollins, who had 16 receptions for 226 yards in 2017. “It’s just more like you’re thinking everything’s against you. ‘I’m not getting healthy. I’m going to get back out there.’ When you come back and I look back now, it’s like, ‘OK, this was worth it.’ Now I prepare my body better because of it, so it’s better in the long run.”
That was the biggest adjustment for Hollins, the biggest tangible change. In college, he said, he could pretty much walk out on to the field before a game and ask, Y’all ready to go? Because he was. But the groin injuries forced him to re-evaluate his preparation for each practice, each game. He noticed how his more-experienced teammates trained their minds and bodies, how they kept to routines. He ran and ran and ran until the strength returned to his groin and the pain — and the fear that the injury might reoccur — went away.
These were lessons he had to learn on his own. It’s a feeling every injured NFL player experiences. You’re not suiting up on Sundays. You’re not contributing. Are you really a professional football player anymore? Who are you now?
“I’m a loner anyway,” he said. “I’m, like, the weird guy. Not too many people hang with me, anyway, with the snakes and all that. Yeah, you get that feeling. It’s more like you’re not on the field. You don’t play football by yourself. I don’t know if it’s different for tennis players or golfers when they get hurt because they’re already by themselves, but when you can’t go out practicing and guys are coming in from the field dead tired and you’re just finishing rehab, you’re there, but you’re not there.”