After Difficult 2008, Ryan Lilja Makes it All The Way Back to Super Bowl Stage
FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. – He was back in the spotlight this week, where he had been three years before and where except in rare circumstances – such as when their teams play in Super Bowls – offensive linemen rarely dwell.
Ryan Lilja thought at times it would never happen.
Not because Lilja, a veteran guard for the Colts, didn't think the team could return to the Super Bowl. It was just that for a long time – a very long, frustrating, frightening time – Lilja figured if/when it did happen, there was a pretty good chance it might not happen for him.
A knee injury caused that feeling – one that required surgery and rehab and even more surgeries and even more rehab and that eventually cost him the 2008 season.
It cost him more than that, Lilja said this week.
At times, it cost him a belief in his future.
"I'd be lying if I told you I never had doubts," Lilja said this week as the AFC Champion Colts (16-2) prepared to play the NFC Champion Saints (15-3) in Super Bowl XLIV at Sun Life Stadium Sunday at 6:25 p.m.
"As frustrating as the process was for me, going through multiple surgeries and not getting better but getting worse, I questioned if this would ever get better and if I'd ever play again."
Lilja, a starter on the Colts' offensive line from 2004-2007, not only played again, he started every game this season, and never missed a practice because of knee issues. He missed practice Wednesday with a back injury, but Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell said he didn't expect Lilja's playing status to be affected.
But Lilja did more than play this season.
He achieved his offseason goal of not only playing, but practicing and preparing as he had before his injury, and also helped the Colts' offensive line reestablish itself as one of the NFL's best units.
Without Lilja, one of the team's top run-blocking linemen, the Colts finished 31st in rushing last season. They finished 32nd this season, but despite that last-place finish, they ran effectively much of the season in late-game situations, and ran well enough to set up the Colts' play-action game.
After allowing 14 sacks last season, the Colts allowed a league-low 13 this season.
Not that Lilja knew for certain he would be part of such an experience.
After playing all 16 games in 2007, Lilja underwent surgery early the following offseason, then another. He opened the season on the Physically Unable to Perform List, but never played, and by the time this past offseason began, he had undergone three surgeries in the last year.
"Finally, the last operation I did a year ago in December fixed me," he said, "but yeah, I doubted it. I struggled with it because you get shut down like that. Surgery after surgery, you think you're getting better, but you're getting worse.
"You start questioning the whole deal. It's a bad place."
Lilja hadn't exactly been used to being sidelined. He started five of 11 games in 2006, but had started all 16 games in 2005 and 2007, and not playing led to "a lot of soul searching."
"It was three surgeries in 10 months," Lilja said. "You're not able to go out and practice, work with the guys and earn your paycheck and all those things that you do. When you're not able to do that, you don't feel real good about yourself. I was frustrated at doctors, I was frustrated at myself, my knee, the whole deal.
"I'm in a much better place now than I was then."
Getting back to that place wasn't easy even after he returned this past summer, Lilja said. His teammates accepted him back immediately, but he said a bigger problem was returning to football condition, re-acclimating a body that hadn't played football in a year to what it had done for years before that.
"Nobody was there for me or had my back as much as my O-line teammates did," Lilja said. "So that was cool to see. They never gave up on me, and they always encouraged me, helped me and motivated me when it was tough. When I got back, it was a great feeling to be able to slide into the huddle with those guys. It was pretty seamless, to be honest with you, getting back and the communication. I was at meetings and I'm talking to the guys, so I know what's going on. But physically, for me, there was a learning curve with getting back on the field and playing football again.
"That was the biggest hill to climb for me, the football part."
Lilja said his situation last season reached a critical point in December. The Colts had been patient as he tried to return, but he said in professional football, he figured he could only take so much time.
"After the last surgery, which for me was kind of 'This has to fix me; This has to work or they're not going to wait another year for me to get healthy,'' he said. "That's not how this business works. Usually they don't wait a year for you to get healthy. So I knew it had to work and really got after the rehab hard with our guys here.
"I had the benefit of time, because I did it in December then was on (injured reserve), so I could really get after it. I didn't have much of an offseason – I was in Indy doing all the work. Right around mini-camp I started to say, 'This is better.'
"I was definitely making progress I hadn't made in the last year, and I kind of knew I was turning the corner then. I had two or three months until training camp, and I kind of knew I was going to get back."
The corner thus turned, Lilja not only started the entire season, he has been part of an offensive line that has played solidly in the playoffs. Before the AFC Championship Game, much of the pregame focus was on the New York Jets' running game, which ranked No. 1 in the NFL in the regular season.
Colts running back Joseph Addai rushed for a season-high 80 yards on 16 carries, the Colts out-rushed the Jets, 101-86, and Lilja was back in a place that a for long time last season seemed difficult to reach.
"Winning the Super Bowl would be the ultimate vindication, so we'll see in a few days," Lilja said. "But it's been a dream season for me, not being able to play last year and coming back, playing in every game and contributing on this offense. Getting into the Super Bowl is a pretty special thing for me, personally."