Medical clearance to play after an injury is the first hurdle. Mental clearance can also pose an obstacle.
Chiefs center Mitch Morse, who missed a total of nine games in 2017 over two stretches because of a left foot injury that required two screws to heal, has reached the conclusion of that challenge.
In January, he posted on his Instagram account that he was able to walk for the first time in six weeks and had been getting around on a scooter.
“It was a real tough time for me last year,” Morse said.
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Prolonged inactivity was a first as a pro for Morse, the second-round pick from Missouri in 2015 who started 31 games in his first two NFL seasons.
Returning to form is also a new experience and his objective.
“To get game speed back to where you need to go,” Morse said. “You can watch as much film as you want, but you have to correlate that on the field. It’s getting movement back. And no matter how hard you train, there’s shape and there’s football shape.”
Regaining football legs is why Morse joined such fellow veterans as running back Spencer Ware and linebacker Dee Ford — who missed all or part of their last seasons — at the early stage of training camp for quarterbacks and rookies.
“Getting the footwork back, trusting it,” Morse said. “It’s the first time I’ve been able to push. It’s a confidence-builder.”
The injury originally occurred in the second game, a victory over the Eagles. Morse was bull rushed by Fletcher Cox and thought he had turned an ankle. He knew better on the next snap, when he had trouble getting where he needed to be to set up a screen.
“I just felt it pop and kind of go,” Morse said.
Morse missed the next five games, returned for five games, suffered another setback and was finished for the season.
After returning the first time, Morse never felt 100 percent.
“The truth of the matter was I wasn’t contributing for the guys,” Morse said “I wasn’t putting my best self out there, and the guys were picking up my slack when I was out there.”
The offensive line worked through other injuries last season, forcing the Chiefs to shuffle, and that helped explain an offensive lull. They averaged 156 rushing yards per game in a 5-0 start and 95 over the next six games when they went 1-5.
Now, Morse is back with health, optimism and a wedding ring. Less than a month ago, he married his “best friend” Caitlyn Wilson in her hometown of Omaha, Neb. They met at Mizzou, where she played volleyball.
There’s also a new quarterback in Morse’s life. Alex Smith had been the starter for the past five seasons. Second-year pro Patrick Mahomes takes over, and he’ll have the advantage of operating behind an experienced offensive line. Of the eight players who started at least one game on the line last season, seven are on the current roster.
“We were fortunate and blessed to have a guy in Alex who had been playing so long,” Morse said. “It made our jobs easier. But Pat’s on his way, and he’s an exceptional football player.”