There is no defender in the NFL that looks forward to going up against Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph. He is a mismatch problem who can make catches in traffic and deep down the field.
It would seem the only player that can consistently stop Rudolph has been Rudolph himself. Over his past six seasons – four with the Vikings and his last two at Notre Dame – he has made it through a full season just twice. He tore his hamstring off the bone at Notre Dame, suffered a broken foot catching a touchdown pass in 2013 and, last year, he missed half the season after needing sports hernia surgery early in the season and sustaining knee and ankle injuries late in the year.
Huge things were expected from Rudolph last season with the arrival of TE-friendly offensive coordinator Norv Turner, but the injuries reduced Rudolph’s offensive contribution to just 24 catches for 231 yards and two touchdowns – all career lows.
It has forced Rudolph to be philosophical about his bad luck and required him to dismiss questions that he is injury-prone. Nobody was looking forward to Turner’s offense coming to Minnesota more than Rudolph, which made his injuries last season even harder to swallow.
“It’s tough any time you have high expectations going into a season and those expectations aren’t met because of injuries,” Rudolph said. “It’s difficult, but, with that being said, if you play long enough, those things are going to happen.”
Having to rehab so many different injuries has made Rudolph something of a hands-on medical expert. In the process, he has learned what he can and can’t do in his daily life to help prevent injuries and keep his body strong in hopes of having a long run of good health and on-field production.
“For me, I’ve learned a lot over the last two years in dealing with the injuries,” Rudolph said. “It has taught me a lot of different ways to take care of my body and set myself up for a run of eight to 10 years with no problems. There’s not much I can dwell on looking back, but I’m excited about how I feel now and what we can accomplish as a team.”
Rudolph has every reason to look forward, because looking back is just too painful. There is a loneliness that comes with being injured. Players don’t have their standard routine and don’t feel like a part of the team. In Rudolph’s case, that has meant making new friends.
Instead of spending time with his coaches and teammates, Rudolph has spent much of the last two years working with head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman and his staff. While he likes Sugarman as a person, he is looking forward to not spending nearly as much time with him as he has the last couple of seasons.
“What people don’t realize is that, when you’re hurt, you’re not around the guys,” Rudolph said. “Your time is 100 percent dedicated to getting better – in the training room and doing rehab. I love (Sugarman) and all those guys in there, but hopefully I won’t be spending any time with them over the next few years.”
The NFL is a world that doesn’t stop when a player is injured, which is why they have the mantra “next man up.” For those who get injured, there is a sense of isolation that separates them from the rest of the team. The train doesn’t stop and those players who are injured feel as if they’re cordoned off from the rest of the team.
For a highly competitive athlete like Rudolph, it’s almost a death sentence, especially on Sundays.
“I think it’s the biggest thing people don’t understand about players when you’re injured – our days completely change when you’re not out there practicing,” Rudolph said. “You don’t spend time with the guys out on the practice field or in meetings. Part of the reason you play this game is because you love being out on the field with your teammates and it’s hard when that gets taken away from you.” The worst part is on Sundays when you’re not out there with your teammates to help them win and there’s nothing you can do. That’s a helpless feeling.”
Rudolph hasn’t set any goals for himself like going to Pro Bowl, catching 70 passes, gaining 1,000 yards or leading the team in touchdown receptions. Given what he has been through the last few years, especially the last two, he has rationalized his goals to be a teammate that can be counted on to be in uniform on Sundays.
“I don’t worry too much about individual goals in terms of catches or yards,” Rudolph said. “For me, it’s about having my best season – playing 16 games and giving our offense a chance to make plays and win ballgames. That’s that biggest statistic we’re worried about here – wins and losses.”
Rudolph has learned a lot from injuries
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