Injury ‘ruined the night’ for Vikings
It was obvious when Minnesota Vikings offensive right tackle Phil Loadholt slammed his helmet on the ground as he was assisted off the field on the second play of Sunday night’s 26-16 win over the Tampa Bay that something was seriously wrong.
As it turned out, it was catastrophic. Word got out by halftime that Loadholt likely will be gone for the season after suffering a torn Achilles tendon. What made the injury so heartbreaking for Loadholt was that he had spent the entire offseason rehabbing a torn pectoral muscle that ended his 2014 season.
As Loadholt prepares for surgery and the long road to recovery, it left his offensive line teammates numb, especially knowing what he had gone through to come back and be healthy for the 2015 campaign.
“We were glad to have him back because he worked his ass off this offseason to be ready to play,” left tackle Kalil said. “It’s the tough thing about this game to see a great guy like Phil hurt after all the work he put in to come back. It’s a tough loss. He’s a really good friend of mine. We’re going to play for him and hope he bounces back fast.”
What should have been a celebratory night for the Vikings after winning their home opener was a somber event because their thoughts were with their fallen teammate.
“It ruined the night for a lot of us,” guard Brandon Fusco said. “It took the fun out of it for all of us. We had played as the first group so far and to see your buddy go down isn’t a good thing.”
Fusco and Loadholt had spent a lot of time together over the past several months. Fusco went down early in the season with a torn pectoral muscle of his own and knows all too well about the isolation an injured player feels when he is recovering from an injury and the day to day life of football goes on without you.
Fusco could empathize with the ordeal Loadholt went through last year because their injuries were very similar and the rehab protocol was the same. The Vikings offensive line took strength from how hard Loadholt attacked his rehab and his loss is even more devastating to the guys in the locker room than to outside observers.
“He worked his tail off getting back here to be 100 percent, but that’s the game of football,” Fusco said. “Stuff happens. Freak accidents. It’s unfortunate. He’s a hard-working guy and he cares so much about the game of football. He’s a big-time locker room guy, so it’s a big loss.”
The one thing the Vikings were looking for this season was continuity. With Loadholt, Fusco and running back Adrian Peterson all back and healthy, there were high expectations as to what the group could accomplish this season.
Whether fans realize it or not, as a veteran leader, Loadholt was a big part of that and his injury leaves the Vikings having to go to Plan B on the fly.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Fusco said. “Continuity on the offensive line is big, so we’re going to have to figure something out and just go from there. I don’t know what else to say about it.”
Having missed large chunks of two seasons, it would be easy to speculate that Loadholt will have a long road to recovery and that his best football may be over.
But for those who know him, they expect Loadholt to work just as hard in the next several months as he had the last several months to come back stronger and in the best shape of his career as the Vikings move into U.S. Bank Stadium. Loadholt has one more year, 2016, left on his contract with a $500,000 roster bonus due in March and a $7.75 million salary-cap number in 2016.
It’s going to be a long journey to that point, but his teammates aren’t counting him out because they know him better than anyone.
“Phil is a tough guy,” Kalil said. “He’s a fighter. He’s one of the biggest leaders on this team, so it’s tough to see him go down. Just the way he is, he’s going to fight his hardest to get back and do whatever he can to get healthy again.”
In the meantime, the Vikings are left with a lot more questions than answers. In 2014, Mike Harris replaced Loadholt. Now, he’s playing guard. When Loadholt went down Saturday, he was replaced by fourth-round rookie T.J. Clemmings, but it’s unclear if he is viewed as a season-long answer because he initially was looked at as the starting right guard.
There are sure to be rumors that the Vikings may go after free agent guard Evan Mathis, who hasn’t had a team meet his free agent demands, but, as things currently stand, Loadholt’s replacement is in the Vikings locker room. Who that will be isn’t set in stone, although Clemmings is the earlier frontrunner.
“Somebody has to step up,” Kalil said. “I don’t know who that is yet. I’m sure someone will step up to the challenge and fill that right tackle void.”
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