Kobe Bryant tore his left Achilles tendon April 13, 2013. At the time, this news didn't mean much to Jordan Hicks, beyond his being a pro basketball fan and having a casual interest in Bryant's health. Five months later, it meant everything to him.
Hicks, a linebacker whom the Eagles drafted in the third round this year out of Texas, tore his left Achilles tendon Sept. 21, 2013. He remembers the entire sequence that led to the injury, down to the finest detail: how he was in one-on-one coverage with a tight end from Kansas State named Andrew McDonald, how McDonald took off on a corner route, how Hicks was right with him until McDonald gave him just the slightest shove, how Hicks gathered himself and planted his left foot to keep up his coverage, how the tendon ruptured and in that instant a bolt of pain made his body tremble and took him to the ground.
For the subsequent six months, Hicks made Bryant his exemplar. He studied what Bryant had done and was doing to rehabilitate his Achilles, noticing how Bryant's training had progressed. Bryant returned to the Lakers lineup Dec. 10, 2013. His time line from injury to recovery was six months. He didn't know it, but he'd given Jordan Hicks a goal.
"I would have beaten him back," Hicks said Friday, during the Eagles rookie camp. "I could have played after 51/2, six months. That was during spring ball. They didn't want to push anything. They wanted me to be good day one of summer workouts, and day one of summer workouts was seven months. I was ready. . . .
"That was my mind-set. I'm a competitive person. I'm used to competing. That's my framework. So I found a way to compete in a terrible time."
Of the 21 players whom the Eagles have drafted since Chip Kelly became their head coach, Hicks might be the Chip Kelliest. Kelly prizes a player's off-field intelligence, and he has shown he has no qualms about acquiring or relying on players whose injury histories would give other coaches pause or scare them away entirely. Hicks - who has already completed his undergraduate degree in sports management, was a first-team all-Big 12 academic selection, and is finishing a master's degree in advertising - fits that profile and then some.
In 2012, in the third game of Texas' season, he tried to make a tackle and tore the adductor muscle in his left leg. He missed the Longhorns' next 10 games. Over the 2012 and '13 seasons, he missed 19. He, Sam Bradford, DeMeco Ryans, and Kiko Alonso can sit around a table in the NovaCare cafeteria, tell stories, and compare scars, like Quint and Hooper aboard The Orca.
"It was tough, because [the Achilles] was the second season-ending injury in a row," Hicks said. "I'd done everything up to that point, physically wise, mentally wise, to prepare myself to not get hurt in that year, and it happened. You learn so much that everything's out of your control."
One has to wonder - and I'm not certain he would admit this, even if asked - whether Kelly regards recovering from a serious injury to play again, and play well, to be an indication of a player's strength of character. In considering the risk that an athlete might suffer another torn ligament or broken bone against the will and work ethic that the athlete has shown in coming back, Kelly seems to weigh the scales on the side of will.
Those intangibles must matter more, because Hicks plays a position - inside linebacker - that wouldn't at first glance seem to be one of great need for the Eagles. Ryans is there. Alonso is there. Mychal Kendricks, all the trade rumors notwithstanding, is there. Even if one of them were to miss a significant portion of the season, the Eagles would have some depth. Yet Kelly told reporters after the Eagles drafted Hicks that the franchise's talent evaluators had judged Hicks to be worth a second-round pick, that no player was close to him on their board when it came time to make the draft's 84th overall selection.
"If the need part of it crosses the talent line, I think that's when you get in trouble because you start reaching," Kelly said. "There was a clear-cut, no one remotely close on our board to where Jordan was at that point in time we picked him."
At 6-foot-1 and 236 pounds, Hicks doesn't have to beef up much, if at all, to play inside, and Kelly described him as "an outstanding special-teams player." It all sounds good, and if Hicks wants to emulate the guard-dog tenacity that has driven Kobe Bryant to greatness, well, a neophyte professional athlete can have worse role models. But then, you look at his career at Texas, at that starting proportion of games played, 45, to games missed, 19. He sat out one of every three games, so how is anyone supposed to gauge how good he really can be in the NFL?
"Look at the games I did play in," Jordan Hicks said. "Simple as that."