Allen Park — For the first time since missing the entire 2022 season, Lions defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike detailed the medical procedure he underwent and the tough road to recovery he faced, including an unexpected fall down some stairs.
In a first-person feature written for the team’s official website, Onwuzurike revealed he had a fusion surgery of two vertebrae in his lower back.
“I needed a spinal fusion in my L5-S1,” Onwuzurike wrote. “It was pretty simple; the surgery could limit my flexibility and prevent me from playing football ever again. There are not a lot of guys who get this surgery and are able to come back to football. I had coaches tell me they had friends get this exact surgery and not be able to return to the game. I think it’s easier if you get this procedure in your neck. Some people get their cervical fused and they have a way better chance to play football. In my research, I didn’t see many players get what I got and come back. Most players get the microdiscectomy and they can come back easier, but that’s very different than a back fusion.”
But Onwuzurike has made it back to the football field, successfully getting through training camp without issue and showing some of the promise that made him a second-round pick for the franchise in 2021. But the recovery wasn’t easy and was nearly derailed completely when he had a fall at home during his rehab.
“The darkest it ever got was when I slipped at my house and fell down the stairs two months after my fusion surgery, which now thinking back on, I find pretty funny,” Onwuzurike wrote. “There was no way my story ends with me slipping and falling. After I got up, I texted my doctor in a panic like, ‘Damn, did I just mess everything up?’ But the X-rays were good. My bone scan was fine. The metal and screws weren’t impacted by the fall.”
Onwuzurike approached the entire process, from the decision to have surgery to the rehab, with a smile. His positive attitude is one of his defining character traits. And now that he’s returned, and expected to have a meaningful role to begin the season, coach Dan Campbell couldn’t be more thrilled for the player.
“He’s been through a lot,” Campbell said. “Through it all, the guy has never complained. I know it hasn’t been easy, but he never gave in and he just kept looking for solutions, he kept working, he kept trusting what was being told (to him by doctors) and, man, he’s worked his way back. His body feels pretty good, and now, because of that, he’s out there on the field and he’s developing. He’s really coming on now. He gets better and better every day, every game, every rep. Now, man, the real growth begins. That’s a credit to him. He puts the work in. I’m happy for him and I’m happy for us. He helps us. He upgrades us.”
Defensive tackle swap
Isaiah Buggs started 13 games last season, but he told reporters on Monday he’d been informed by the coaching staff he’ll be a healthy scratch against Kansas City. Asked if Buggs failed to live up to the organization’s standards or had simply been passed up by others on the depth chart, Campbell said all playing time judgements were based on offseason practice performance.
“We base everything off the tape, period,” Campbell said. “I’ve spoken to Buggs and that stays between us. But yeah, we feel like guys that are best prepared to go this week, for this game, those are the guys that will be up.”
But Campbell said as long as Buggs is part of the organization, he’ll have an open door to reclaim a role.
“Absolutely,” Campbell said. “He’s been told that, but it’s not different than any of those players, and that includes practice squad players. We tell them, ‘You have an opportunity, make the most of it. And you’ve got to show us in practice.’
“I just go back to James Houston. There’s a reason we activated James Houston. I mean, it got to the point where the guy, we couldn’t ignore him anymore. He just kept making plays in practice, he kept stressing our offensive line, and he earned his right to get up there and proved that. So any player on this roster has an opportunity.”
One player who managed to grab the brass ring this offseason, and who will effectively replace Buggs in the starting lineup, is nose tackle Benito Jones. Claimed off waivers days before the start of last season, he took a while to adjust to the scheme and his role in it, playing a little more than 300 defensive snaps last year.
This year, Jones’ improvement and consistency haven’t gone unnoticed, which has him on track for a bigger role in 2023.
“He’s been another one of those guys that it feels a little quiet, but every day he’s made improvement, from spring to now,” Campbell said. “It’s just his fundamentals, his technique, he’s been able to anchor in the run, push the pocket in the pass. I just think fundamentally he’s been better than he was last year. So there’s a level of consistency that he’s had that I think everybody in this building has seen.”
Road to recovery
Early impressions of cornerback Emmanuel Moseley, following his activation off the physically unable to perform list last week, have been positive.
“It’s encouraging,” Campbell said. “Every day, man, he’s getting his legs back under him. He’s been getting some reps out there and he took some one-on-one reps the other day. That was his first kind of taste of it. You can tell — he’s got a big grin on his face — he’s starting to feel pretty good. Here we are, a couple days, really three days after (his activation) and he’s feeling pretty good. He’s getting better.”
Asked if there’s a chance Moseley could see the field Thursday against the Chiefs, the coach hedged.
“He’ll definitely play this season,” Campbell said. “I believe that with everything.”