GREEN BAY – David Bakhtiari likens it to driving a sports car. His finely tuned body is an unnatural mix of size, speed and flexibility, athleticism most people can only dream of. It is top of the line, total package for an All-Pro offensive lineman.
At least if he’s healthy.
Bakhtiari has not been healthy for almost 19 months. This sizable left knee that’s jammed at least three times since tore his ACL on New Year’s Eve in 2020, which now requires at least three surgeries, won’t work. Bakhtiari knows what his body can do when all is well, when it feels ‘normal’, but for a year and a half he has been unable to heal.
“Imagine driving a sports car,” Bakhtiari said, “and holding it in first gear.”
There have been many repeats of the same injury since Bakhtiari twisted his knee in a no-contact rep three days before the Green Bay Packers traveled to Chicago for their 2020 regular season finale. He tore not only his ACL but also his meniscus that day. There was cartilage damage. His knee was tattered, a broken engine prevented him from reaching top gear.
That’s what it felt like last January when the Packers traveled to Detroit for a meaningless season finale. The NFC’s best overall seed was guaranteed to win or lose two weeks before a home game against the San Francisco 49ers. It wasn’t necessary for Bakhtiari to play 27 snaps that day, but his quarterback wanted to grab a test run with his franchise links. It was never an ideal situation for Bakhtiari to make his return. The Lions play at Ford Field, an indoor stadium with artificial grass instead of natural grass. The surface is known to be hard on the leg joints.
Aaron Rodgers begged Bakhtiari in a text message that week to do everything he could to be available. The Packers hoped Bakhtiari would feel good after Detroit and protect Rodgers in the playoffs. Instead, those 27 snaps were all he played last season.
Bakhtiari said he will need another knee procedure this off-season. The operation prevented him from participating in the team’s organized team activities and mini-camp. He is now on the list for the second year in a row as being physically unable to perform, although he is not recovering from the same injury that kept him sidelined last year.
“We don’t really have an ACL problem,” Bakhtiari said. “It’s actually been a long time since we put that chapter to bed. There are just other issues I navigate through, things I learn, and it’s been my nightmare.”
Bakhtiari showed optimism on Wednesday after the Packers opened training camp with their first practice, something that could not have been easy given how tough the past 19 months have been. “It’s my nightmare,” Bakhtiari said, “that I have to live with, and I don’t know how many days it’s been, but I’m just excited to wake up one day.” He feels that day is coming soon. In his darkest moments, Bakhtiari said he had given up hope that his knee would ever feel normal again. Perhaps he had to settle for a “new normal” after reconstructive surgery.
Those fears are gone. Despite being on PUP, Bakhtiari said his knee feels just as strong as it did before the ACL tear. It is the first time, he said, that his knee has felt healthy since before the injury.
“I would say I really enjoy how my knee functions, works and moves,” Bakhtiari said. “It’s not like, I would say, how I handled it last year. It’s hard to describe. I think only people who’ve been through it would have an idea, especially if it doesn’t work with you. There was just stuff, it almost felt like a blockage. It was really weird.”
The Packers will be careful before expecting their All-Pro left tackle to return to being the player they were before his catastrophic injury. General manager Brian Gutekunst said he is not worried about whether Bakhtiari will play again, despite the many delays. Still, Yosh Nijman took the first team reps on Wednesday in the left tackle with Rodgers on the field. In mini camp Nijman moved to the right when Rodgers was behind the middle.
Coach Matt LaFleur praised Bakhtiari for his work ethic during his rehab, but he has learned not to count on an injured player until recovery is complete. “I don’t pay attention to timelines anymore,” said LaFleur. “If they’re erased, they’re erased.” If that sounds like coaching speech, LaFleur also emphasized how rare Bakhtiari’s complicated recovery has been.
“I’ve never been in anything like this,” LaFleur said. “So, yeah, I think when it’s a scoop, you’re a little surprised. At the same time, I have a lot of confidence, not only in our people here, but also in Dave. Just the effort he puts in every day to be at his best, I mean he’s a pro’s pro.
“It’s a shame, but it is what it is. When he’s ready to go, we’ll be delighted to have him back there.”
Bakhtiari would not say whether he regretted playing in Detroit last season. Serving the playoffs was very disappointing, an absence the Packers felt. Rodgers was harassed relentlessly against the 49ers’ defense behind a makeshift front line, including Billy Turner making his first left start all season. Now that he is healthier than he has been in a long time, Bakhtiari just wants to move forward.
It is uncertain when Bakhtiari will play again. He had no timeline for his return, but made it clear that he expects to be back. If he is not clear of PUP by the end of the camp, Bakhtiari will not be eligible to return until week 5 at the earliest. Between now and then, he focuses on amplifying the load his knee can bear, finding a way to get his body past first gear.
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He knows that returning as the two-time All-Pro he was before, a player Rodgers once described as a future Hall of Famer, will be the biggest challenge of his career.
“I remember playing,” Bakhtiari said, “I remember thinking, ‘Man, this is going to be pretty easy.’ And it was fun. I’d say, ‘Let’s make it a little challenging.’ Well, I got that answer. This is definitely the most challenging thing I’ve had to go through. Then I spoke to my wife recently, and I thought about how I started my career. Not just here, but when I was putting on sanitary pads, I had no one really thought I’d be where I was.
“It’s pretty cool to feel that again. You can say or not say, but I know those questions are there. I’m like, ‘This is cool.’ Because it’s like I can relive that same story. I made the choice then and I can make the choice again.”