Jordan Hicks knew what happened before the doctors told him. He dropped to the ground on the second play of an Oct. 23, 2017 game against Washington, already realizing the sharp pain in his heel meant the Achilles tendon in his right leg had ruptured.
Tuesday marks the one-year anniversary of the injury, which occurred in Week 7. Hicks hasn't planned a celebration. He'll play Sunday against the Carolina Panthers in Week 7 of this season as an integral part of the defense – as long as he stays healthy.
He'll return home after the game to his 7-week-old son, Ayven. He'll have a Super Bowl ring – one won while he hobbled on the sideline instead of on the field – and a prominent role in a budding wealth-management firm headquartered in Philadelphia. He didn't have any of those when he lay injured on the turf. It created a juxtaposition for Hicks, with his professional career rattled by a devastating injury while his personal life blossomed in a way he never experienced. It's been only one year, and he shakes his head thinking about what it entailed.
"How would I describe the past year?" Hicks said. "It's been one heck of a freakin' ride."
Hicks sat with his wife, Ivana, recently and discussed just how much changed from the time he entered the 2017 season. Hicks was a newlywed, coming off a season in which he established himself as one of the top young linebackers in the NFL. He was ready to ascend in Year 3.
They went on their honeymoon to Greece before training camp, and Hicks slipped on the pool deck at a Mykonos resort, breaking a bone in his right pinkie while bracing for the fall. The injury wasn't serious, but it was an ominous start to a season in which he never seemed right.
"Things were great, things were looking awesome," Hicks said, "and then obviously everything happened."
Hicks injured his left ankle in Week 3 of last season, continued playing on it, and then reinjured the ankle in Week 6 against Carolina. He refused to take time off, and he believes the Achilles tendon injury occurred while he was compensating for the ankle injury.
Hicks, who leaned on his wife and his faith, suffered the same injury in college at Texas. He knew an arduous recovery awaited. He had a relationship with his wife during the first injury that was "more of a roller coaster" because he didn't know what the rehab entailed. This time, Hicks assembled a plan from the beginning.
"It was all attack mode," Hicks said. "Obviously, there was a tough time at the beginning in trying to compartmentalize what had happened and move into the next stage. But once I got there, a couple days later, it was 100 percent."
Hicks scheduled every hour of his day, which is not typical of him. He installed a whiteboard in his locker stall, something that is also used by Malcolm Jenkins and Nelson Agholor. Hicks wrote his goals on the whiteboard, with a checkbox next to each one:
"They were empty at the beginning," Hicks said. "By the end of it, they were all checked."
He rehabbed with other prominent Eagles. While Hicks sat on the trainer's table in the locker room after the injury, Jason Peters came in with a torn ACL. Chris Maragos had exited the game with him against Carolina with a season-ending knee injury. Darren Sproles' Week 3 also overlapped with Hicks' leaving a game. They took MRIs together and developed a kinship, soon joined by quarterback Carson Wentz.
"I know there's been a lot of talk about my offseason, my journey – his is every bit kind of whirlwind-like," Wentz said.
Hicks had been on the brink of Pro Bowl status. Now he was set to enter a contract year with a label of being injury-prone. And to make it bittersweet, the Eagles kept winning without the injured players. Hicks had dreamed of playing in the Super Bowl. His team, his defense reached it, and all he could do was watch and rehab.
"I told myself … I'm going to come out of this thing better than I went in," Hicks said.
By training camp, he was back taking every drill. He didn't miss time in the preseason. He started Week 1, 10-plus months after the injury. He's been the only player on the Eagles to take every defensive snap.
Hicks said during the spring that he doesn't need to prove he can be productive, just that he can be healthy.
Hicks has since changed the message on the whiteboard. It now reads URGENCY, because he already achieved his post-injury checklist. He used the GPS data to determine he had become faster after the injury. He used the weight room data to conclude he had become stronger. And by his own assessment, he became smarter with more time devoted to watching film and to "take a the third-person perspective on the whole season."
But it wasn't just those three boxes that motivated Hicks when he looked at the whiteboard. It was also the photo he put next to it: the image he took home from his wife's first ultrasound.
A welcome new wrinkle
During the Eagles' postseason run, while Hicks so badly wanted to be on the field, Hicks had an idea his wife was pregnant. A pregnancy test confirmed the suspicion.
"What could have been a dark time," Hicks said, "you get some of the greatest news you could think of."
The due date was Week 1 of the season – a date Hicks targeted to return. There was a new wrinkle to his already rigid rehab.
"It really changed my perspective, even the little bit I understood," Hicks said. "Different motivation. Obviously, there's going to be days that drag, especially during the mundaneness of every day being the same and through the rehab, to come in here when you're tired, when you're hurting, when you're discouraged — the team is playing so well, and you want to be out there with them – you have something to look at, something to work for other than for yourself."
A sweeping paternal instinct overtook his life. Tight end Zach Ertz said Hicks already seemed like a father. His teammates nicknamed him "Simba" as a rookie because he was an understudy to respected veteran DeMeco Ryans, nicknamed "Mufasa." But the pending fatherhood took it up a notch.
Hicks fulfilled his fatherly duties of preparing the house for a baby during the summer. On the day of the Eagles' preseason finale, Hicks went to get a haircut. He told Ertz he had a feeling the baby was coming at any moment, and he wanted to look good for photos. He stood on the sideline during the game and discussed contingencies with director of team security Dom DiSandro. His wife's water broke around midnight, and a few hours later, his son was born in time for the NFL season.
"Those first few days were a blur," Hicks said. "You look into his eyes and you're like, 'This is my kid.' It take some time for that to sink in."
Hicks believed that he might not be a father now if not for the injury. He spent more time at home, less time preparing for a game.
Hicks, who is outspoken about his faith, believes that "God is faithful to those who are faithful to him." Wentz said that even though it seems like a cliche, he and Hicks "firmly believe everything happens for a reason." His son might be an example – and it wasn't the only one.
"Without this injury, who knows what my life would look like right now?" Hicks said. "Huge blessings in my life have stemmed from it."
A business owner
Maragos and Hicks drove together to Saturday night meetings before home games last season. Hicks couldn't drive, so Maragos picked him up. Along the way last November, they discussed the idea for a wealth-management company. Hicks, who took business classes at Texas and did an internship with a financial adviser, was intrigued. The concept made sense.
In March, Hicks joined Maragos and former teammate Trey Burton to launch TopTier, which aides athletes in financial planning. Hicks, Maragos, and Burton are owners in the firm and have partners.
"Without us being hurt at the same time, I don't know if TopTier launches with me being a part of it or [in] the capacity I am," Hicks said. "When you're so focused on the season, maybe those conversations don't happen between Chris and I. Maybe I don't take them as seriously as I do. Maybe I don't do my due diligence on the company itself. It's unbelievable. If we don't get injured at the same time, if I can't drive, Chris doesn't pick up, who knows where TopTier is right now? …I think it's another light in the darkness."
Hicks took time this past week to reflect on the last year and said he's learned the most about "ownership" and "responsibilities." The injury forced him to grow. It reaffirmed football is not guaranteed.
He's been diligent this season, doing everything he can to take care of his body to stay on the field. It's the last year of his contract, and his health could dictate the payday he receives this offseason. Hicks rushes out of the facility after practice every Friday, when the Eagles are off, but it's not to take advantage of free time. He goes for acupuncture and then returns to the facility for a massage, maintaining his body as much as he can.
"She understands the situation we're in," Hicks said of his wife. "But when I do get home, I try to take as much of a load off of her and just be present for him."
Hicks also spoke about how much he's grown as a father and a husband this year, playing into the ownership and responsibility lessons. The mantra he tells himself: "If you don't do it, who's going to do it?"
This perspective might have come to Hicks even if he didn't tear his Achilles last year, even if he played every game and starred in the Super Bowl. He might have become a father this year regardless, might have started TopTier while playing middle linebacker last season. But Hicks believes that "we were all put in that position for a reason" and "to second-guess that is no good."
So when Hicks takes the field for Week 7 one year after his devastating injury, he looks at all that happened and would live it again.
"Do you change it? Would you change it? I can't say I would," Hicks said. "It's part of my story."