Winborn practiced without limitations during the Niners' first spring minicamp earlier this month, and he'll be back in full force when the team reconvenes in June for its final two minicamps. That in itself is amazing, considering Winborn had his C-5 and C-6 vertebrae fused together last December.
When an NFL player faces that kind of operation, the usual reaction is that his career may be over. There are safer lines of rewarding work available for a talented young man such as Winborn, who cheerfully took part in graduation ceremonies at Vanderbilt University, his alma mater, two weeks ago. Winborn, who joined the Niners in 2001 after his junior season at Vandy, already received his degree in human and organizational development last July, but he had a football season to worry about at the time.
A few months later, he had his future to worry about.
After displaying flashes of brilliance last year during San Francisco's first nine games, Winborn experienced a tingling sensation in practice the next week. A Magnetic Resonance Imaging exam on Nov. 12 revealed a herniated disk in his neck, and the team placed him on injured reserve three days later. The first day of the rest of his life began Dec. 4, when he underwent surgery in San Francisco.
"When I found out what was wrong, when we had it diagnosed exactly, I definitely had to face it," Winborn said. "But it wasn't a problem. Sometimes, things just happen. Once that MRI came in, I just took it one day at a time. First thing's first. I definitely had to have the surgery. After that, just go through the (rehabilitation) stages and see how it turns out. It turned out perfect. Let's roll with it."
After being cleared by doctors to return to the field, Winborn rolled through team drills without incident during the May minicamp, even assuring himself he was back by getting knocked around a bit. Winborn said, "I actually got hit in the neck four or five times unexpectedly and I didn't realize it until I got back to the huddle. But it felt good. No problems or anything like that."
His recovery has been nothing short of remarkable. Even doctors have told him so.
"Oh, yeah, definitely," Winborn said, gleaming. "The way that I've healed up ... They've always said that about me, that for some reason, I just heal up faster than normal. I'm just still young. That's all it is."
Winborn faced the risk of paralysis had he hit his neck wrong before his disk problem was diagnosed. How's the neck now? Winborn doesn't even plan to wear any additional protective padding this season.
"It doesn't hurt or anything like that," chimed Winborn, who said matter-of-factly that returning to the field from such a serious, career-threatening injury wasn't a difficult mental hurdle to overcome.
"No, not at all," he said. "I've been past things way worse than this. This is just a game. I mean, I have the Lord looking over me, so I don't worry about those type of things.
"This was something that was able to be fixed, and if it heals properly, then I would be able to play, and that's exactly what happened. If you put your mind to it and work hard, that's what you can do. I had nothing else on my mind but to get back. So I just got out there and worked and put in my hours each day. And that's it. I don't look back at all. I just go out 100 percent."