OWINGS MILLS – The intense pain has subsided, the range of motion is returning and Haruki Nakamura is running again.
Not at full speed yet, but he’s beginning to hit stride in a lengthy rehabilitation to get back on the football field.
After suffering a gruesome broken right fibula last season, the Baltimore Ravens’ backup free safety is targeting possibly taking part in offseason minicamps with a firm goal of a healthy return by training camp.
“It’s a very long process, but I’ve made some great advances as far as strengthening it,” Nakamura told 24×7 in a telephone interview. “I’m running now and I’m able to work on my form. I’m basically teaching myself how to run again. I’m excited, I’m feeling pretty good.
“I’ll definitely be 100 percent by training camp and I’m hopefully going to be able to participate in the minicamps to be able to get back into the rhythm of the game. I want to walk through some things for the mental aspect of the game. It’s a real possibility because I’m healing quickly.”
For Nakamura, his progress from an ugly injury has been remarkable.
It hasn’t erased the memory of what happened last season during a nationally-televised road game against the Cleveland Browns.
With his foot planted in the ground while blocking on the opening kickoff, Nakamura felt Browns star Josh Cribbs fall on his ankle.
He immediately knew something was wrong. The pain was practically unbearable.
“It was scary,” said Nakamura, a Cleveland native whose family was watching from the stands while he was carted off the field. “I felt this intense burning sensation in my leg. It was pretty bad.
“I basically went into shock after that initial burning sensation. I felt that throbbing. I tried to relax myself. All I was thinking was, ‘Please don’t let this end my career.’”
Nakamura didn’t need an X-ray technician to tell him he had broken something.
Once he was on the X-ray table to determine the extent of the damage, the pain kicked in big-time.
“The adrenaline wore off, and the amount of pain kicked in,” Nakamura said. “That was the worst thing. I was in total agony. I had torn ligaments, damaged nerves. I can’t even describe what the pain felt like other than to say it felt like my ankle was literally on fire.”
Since the day he got hurt and underwent surgery to repair the damage, Nakamura has been through an intense regimen of recovery.
He spent three weeks in a cast. Then, he was in a walking boot for a month.
Doctors have removed a screw from his ankle.
Learning to have faith in his right leg again and rebuilding the muscles that atrophied when he was on crutches are major goals.
And Nakamura is making progress from the nerve damage suffered that affected his sensations in his toes, an ailment that’s expected to eventually go away.
“I’m building the strength back, and the range of motion has been there for a while now since I got the screw out,” Nakamura said. “One of the big things for me is learning to really trust my leg. It’s hard to have a big-time injury like that and then go back on the field and have all these guys falling around you.”
Although Tom Zbikowski filled in capably for Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed with a pair of interceptions when the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year was sidelined in December, the Ravens’ secondary missed Nakamura’s coverage skills and the special-teams suffered without him.
Prior to the injury, Nakamura was seeing a lot of playing time in the Ravens’ nickel and dime packages.
Because of his range and instincts, Nakamura is regarded as a potential successor for Reed should he decide to retire.
At this point, though, Nakamura is expecting his mentor to return.
“I haven’t talked to Ed, I just want to give him some space so he can sit down and make a good decision, not an emotional decision,” Nakamura said. “I think he really wants to give himself some time to relax and see where he’s at. I think his passion for the game will determine his decision.
“I couldn’t see a guy like that with so much love for the game not want to come back. Ed is one of the best guys to help you learn the game and teach you what he sees. I hope he’ll keep playing for a long time. I told him he’s got to come back because I’ve got a lot more to learn from him.”
Heading into his third NFL season after being drafted in the sixth round out of the University of Cincinnati, Nakamura is intent on emerging as more than a complementary player going forward.
When he gets back on the field, Nakamura wants to make a difference.
”I’m very mentally strong, that’s one of my biggest qualities,” Nakamura said. “I’m willing to take on a challenge head-on. I’m not going to do the whole poor-me thing. I’m going to try to push through everything to be able to come back 100 percent.
“I’m not looking to just make the team. I want to be a factor. I’m setting very high goals for myself. I’m never going to stop shooting for that. I wouldn’t let an injury like this stop me. “
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.