Tyrell Crosby mulls future after spine fusion, says Detroit Lions betrayed him in harrowing ordeal

Detroit Free Press

Tyrell Crosby was standing in his shower, the water running over him a couple hours before heading to the airport early Tuesday morning, when it dawned on him just how different this trip was.

A Detroit Lions offensive tackle in 2018-21, Crosby was traveling to Michigan for the fifth straight summer, only this time he was not heading back for training camp with a large suitcase packed with size 16 shoes, video game consoles and clothes for the fall.

Ten months after his car was stolen from in front of his Canton apartment, Crosby was returning to metro Detroit to pick up the vehicle after $26,000 in insurance repairs and to close the storage facility that has housed his things since he underwent spinal fusion surgery last December.

That procedure has left Crosby’s football career in peril, and in the midst of a 10- to 12-month rehab, the 26-year-old said multiple doctors have advised him to give up the sport for good.

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He has not lifted weights seriously in nearly a year. He takes a three- to five-mile walk most mornings to stay in shape. And as Lions fans unaware of his condition have inquired about his return and social media has buzzed with the beginnings of a new season, Crosby is reminded just how bitter his final months with the organization were.

“It really sucks for me just cause you’ve been around that fan base,” Crosby told the Free Press this week. “They are so passionate, just every year the Lions are going to win the Super Bowl. I love that fan base so much, and that’s what kind of sucks about it and just now having a lot of people kind of tweet at me, ‘Hey, wish you were back,’ and things like that. And I’m just like, ‘If only you guys knew,’ cause I wouldn’t want to play for that organization just knowing what I know now and just how poorly they treat their players. That’s what kind of sucks, just because I’ve met so many wonderful people online who are Lions fans who have just been so supportive.”

Crosby’s ordeal began last summer when he suffered a mild hamstring injury in the second week of camp that sidelined him for most of the preseason.

He said he complained to coaches and trainers about back pain during his rehab, but those concerns were dismissed.

Crosby returned to practice on a limited basis in late August, before the Lions’ preseason finale against the Indianapolis Colts. He said he endured nonstop back spasms in his first practice back and was fined about $5,000 for missing his scheduled weight room workout that day, when he was receiving treatment on his back after practice.

Days later, Crosby said he complained of persistent back pain again — “You know that feeling you get when you’re in a really deep stretch but like to the point where it just hurts? That’s how it felt down my entire leg and into my low (back),” he said — when assistant trainer Tom Colt asked if he could play eight plays in that week’s game against the Colts.

Crosby said he could, despite the pain, and struggled in his series-and-a-half — he played nine snaps — on the field.

Three days later, the Lions waived Crosby with an injury designation in a move that surprised many.

Retaliation for OTAs?

A fifth-round pick out of Oregon in 2018, Crosby had been a regular contributor on the Lions offensive line the previous three seasons. He played in 10 games as a rookie, mostly as a backup, made five starts in Year 2, and was the Lions’ primary right tackle in 2020 after free agent addition Halapoulivaati Vaitai broke his foot in the preseason.

The Lions spent a first-round draft pick on offensive tackle Penei Sewell last spring, but Crosby still seemed ticketed for a swing tackle role entering the final season of his rookie contract.

He sat out voluntary workouts all last spring, however, a decision he insisted was due to being homesick after barely seeing family during the 2020 season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. And he said Lions coach Dan Campbell and others in the organization seemed to hold that against him, and that was part of the reason they were nonresponsive to his complaints about back pain.

At minicamp, Crosby said then-Lions offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn chided him during drills about missing OTAs for being “afraid to compete.” He said Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes called him into the office last spring “pretty much saying how I’m bad for the team because I walk around like I don’t care about my teammates, the city of Detroit, the staff members when that’s everything of those are like the furthest from the truth.”

The organization requested he report early for training camp with rookies, quarterbacks and injured veterans even though he had not finished the 2020 season on injured reserve, a request they rescinded after involvement from the NFL Players Association. And when he was waived-injured, Crosby said Holmes “pretty much sarcastically thank(ed) me for playing through an injury that I thought I had.”

The Lions declined comment about all of Crosby’s accusations this week.

After he was waived, Crosby, who said he declined the Lions’ initial offer a four-week injury settlement, flew to Jacksonville for an independent evaluation on his back by Jaguars team physician, Dr. Kevin Kaplan.

Crosby said Kaplan initially diagnosed him with radiculopathy, or sciatica, but scheduled an MRI for when he returned to Detroit. The MRI revealed a degenerating condition in Crosby’s L3 through S1 discs in his lower back, he said, and doctors gave him a cortisone shot and had him start rehab to ease the pain.

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The shot led to more problems, however, when the puncture wound did not close. Crosby said he suffered debilitating headaches for days and spent the Saturday of the Oregon-Ohio State game lying on his floor “afraid to literally fall asleep that night because I didn’t know if I was going to wake up.”

“I was just terrified for my life because I’ve never experienced something like that before,” he said.

While a blood patch eventually fixed the leaking spinal fluid that caused his headaches, Crosby, who reverted to injured reserve after he cleared waivers, said the Lions downplayed his concerns, suggesting he wait a few days and speak to his physical therapist about the issue.

Crosby continued rehab into October, but when his back failed to show any improvement, he traveled to California to visit noted spine specialist Dr. Robert Watkins.

Watkins, whose clientele includes Peyton Manning and Rob Gronkowski, told Crosby the discs in his lower back had degenerated to the point that his back was collapsing on the left side. He discovered a bone spur in Crosby’s spinal canal, near the sciatic nerve. And when another round of rehab did nothing to ease the pain, Crosby underwent surgery Dec. 14 to fuse his L5 and S1 vertebrae.

“For me, I notice I’ve lost mobility in my low back,” Crosby said. “Right now I’m dealing with, just like my left leg definitely struggles to, if I’m trying to speed walk, which I found out this past weekend, trying to make my gate for my flight, I couldn’t walk normal with my leg like when I was trying to speed walk. … It’s weird.”

‘A genuine piece of meat’

A spinal fusion is not necessarily career-ending surgery.

Manning won a Super Bowl after undergoing four neck surgeries, including a fusion, and the Dallas Cowboys took LSU linebacker Damone Clark in the fifth round of this year’s draft after he underwent fusion to repair a herniated disc.

But many NFL players have found fusions impossible to come back from, including former Seattle Seahawks running back Chris Carson, who was waived with a failed physical designation this week, eight months after undergoing a cervical fusion, and reportedly plans to retire.

Crosby said doctors inserted four screws, a cage and two rods in his back, going through both his stomach and back to perform the surgery.

When he awoke after about four hours, still groggy from the drugs pumped into his veins, he requested his attending nurse play Celine Dion’s Christmas album.

Crosby spent the better part of four days in the hospital and three more in a hotel because of travel restrictions. When he was finally cleared to leave, he spent the entire four-hour drive from Los Angeles to his home in Las Vegas in a back brace in the back seat of his mother’s car. The two made frequent stops along the way so Crosby could stretch his back.

Crosby said no one from the Lions organization has reached out to him since before surgery, aside from teammates like Jonah Jackson, Frank Ragnow, Vaitai and Logan Stenberg.

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“In all honesty, it made me just put in reflective of like why the team has been the way it’s been,” he said. “They truly just don’t care about the players, and it’s so disheartening to say that because those first three years, I truly loved every moment of it. And just have been so, for me, incredibly grateful for that opportunity.

“But then you go through something like, even though I wasn’t a star player, I was always in that building smiling. I would go out of the way for anybody in that building, and then to realize, ‘Oh, they actually just treat you like a genuine piece of meat and they don’t — they act like they truly don’t care.’ It’s so disheartening, and I hear from like other guys around the league that it’s, most teams aren’t that way. And so you start to understand, ‘Oh, this is definitely something that starts from the top down.’ It sucks.”

Crosby said he has maintained his playing weight of about 325 pounds, but has struggled to get in playing shape.

Aside from his daily walks, he does abdominal and other body-weight workouts as part of his rehab, but little else. He is in the process of opening an insurance brokerage in Las Vegas, a franchise opportunity he started last spring before his injury to create passive income for the future.

Still, he has not given up hope of returning to the NFL.

“If I get to that point and I’m like I think I can still do it, or like still want to do it I definitely would do it,” he said. “And if (my) body’s telling me it’s able to, me being me and just being the competitor that I am, I’m going to push it and do as much as I can to get back to where I was.”

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If he has played his last game, Crosby said he will be forever grateful for the friendships football helped him make and also left wondering what could have been with his career.

If not for the back injury, Crosby would have entered free agency this spring as one of the more accomplished offensive tackles on the market. And he likely would be in training camp somewhere right now competing for playing time.

“Every year I improved in my opinion drastically,” Crosby said. “I got better each year and throughout the season. So I never felt myself plateau yet and for me, it was like going into my fourth year I was super excited, feeling really good. So it kind of sucked to have an injury this severe. It was hard on me mentally.

“I’ve shut out guys like Joey Bosa, Chandler Jones, Cam Jordan, like multiple All-Pro and some future Hall-of-Fame dudes I played phenomenally against and to know I have that capability and then to have an injury like I did, it’s like, ‘Damn, that sucks.’”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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