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The long road back for Eagles defensive tackle Tim Jernigan’s back | Bob Ford

An offseason injury cost the defensive tackle a lot, but it could have cost him his career.

Eagles defensive tackle Tim Jernigan tries to get the crowd into the game during the third quarter against the Giants.
Eagles defensive tackle Tim Jernigan tries to get the crowd into the game during the third quarter against the Giants.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

There was only one moment Sunday afternoon in a locker room filled with happy and relieved football players during which the gold-capped smile disappeared from the face of Eagles defensive tackle Tim Jernigan.

There were more than enough reasons for the smiles. After seven months of recovery from surgery to repair a career-threatening back injury, Jernigan had been on the field with his teammates once again. He played 20 snaps next to his buddy Fletcher Cox and felt just as good after the game as he had before it.

"Every play is a fight out there," Jernigan said. "It was so good just to run out of the tunnel and be back with my brothers. They are all self-driven guys, but I think I add fuel to the fire a little bit."

The fire on the defensive line has not been raging this season, even though Cox is still a force in the middle. The Eagles have missed Beau Allen at tackle, just as they have missed Vinny Curry at defensive end. Both were post-Super Bowl roster casualties, but Jernigan, who signed a contract extension in November, was supposed to be a big part of the 2018 plans. That was until a March injury led to the April surgery and his long stint on the NFI (non-football injury) list.

Jernigan's journey has been well-documented, but the nature of the actual injury is still a mystery. That single moment when he stopped smiling Sunday came when a reporter, innocently it seemed, asked, "Tim, so how did you hurt yourself, anyway?"

"That's something I don't want to talk about," Jernigan said, tight-lipped. "Next question."

In some ways, it doesn't matter, but who doesn't like a good mystery? Being assigned to the NFI list merely means the injury didn't happen when the player was with his team or at a team facility or team-organized workout. So what did Jernigan do to himself to cause a severe herniation of a disc in his back? Maybe it was a weight-lifting incident. Maybe he served as an emergency jack for a tire-changing operation. On his team bio, Jernigan mentions "learning how to ski" as his bucket-list goal. The Alps are lovely in March.

So, who knows? Jernigan certainly isn't saying, for what he calls "safety reasons."

Back surgery is no joke for anyone, particularly an NFL lineman, and it comes with no guarantees. Jernigan underwent a microdiscectomy performed by Robert Watkins, an orthopedic spine surgeon and co-director of the Marina Del Ray Hospital Spine Clinic. Watkins performed the successful surgery on Peyton Manning's neck, and his other clients have included Wayne Gretzky and Joe Montana, so Jernigan wasn't in the hands of a guy from the practice squad.

The injury and subsequent surgery had real implications for Jernigan's football future that went beyond just the physical aspect. Because he hurt himself away from the team, the Eagles were no longer liable for the guaranteed portion of his four-year, $48 million contract extension. The deal was reworked so that Jernigan would get his scheduled $3 million base salary this season, but all of the $35 million remaining through 2021 is now entirely at the team's option. Very literally, Jernigan had to get back on the field this season to get a job next year, whether with the Eagles or another team.

"I don't want to make this about me," Jernigan said Sunday. "It's about us. We're going to make the best of the situation. We ain't going to give up. They're going to have to kick us out of this thing. Coming off a year where we won the Super Bowl, and then come into a year like this when you struggle a little bit, you start to find out who's with you and who ain't."

Read that as a veiled commentary on the front office, if you like. In any case, the defense has been inconsistent stopping opponents at the line of scrimmage, which has exposed the tattered defensive backfield as a result. If Jernigan can hold up and increase his playing time, it should go a long way to solidifying the line.

"He was disruptive, flying around, just being Timmy," Cox said. "It's really good to have him back and to see him out there just doing what Timmy does."

Early in the game, Jernigan told Giants running back Saquon Barkley that "there was a new sheriff in town" and he shouldn't expect to romp around as he had in the first meeting between the teams. The law wasn't enforced until the second half, however, when Barkley gained 7 yards on the ground after a 94-yard first half. Nevertheless, it happened and the triumph was both personal and professional for Tim Jernigan.

"This is a gladiator sport," he said. "You can't come out there and expect things to go easy for you. It's going to be hard."

Jernigan has been through a hard stretch already this year. He's not expecting that to entirely disappear. It is just time to see the reward and start smiling once again.