Josh Bynes lay in a hospital bed five months ago with no idea about his future.
He was flat on his back, unable to turn his body to either side. He had a tingling sensation down his right leg and there was blood in his urine. The pain was excruciating.
Bynes had taken an awkward hit to his back while making a tackle during practice. Swelling started almost immediately and within an hour he could hardly walk. The Ravens training staff thought he might have suffered an internal injury, possibly to his kidneys.
When Bynes got to the hospital, doctors put him through MRIs, CAT scans and a series of other tests to determine exactly what was wrong. When the doctor walked through the door, the diagnosis was grim.
Bynes had a broken back.
The injury was rare, the kind of trauma doctors typically only see after car accidents and almost never on the football field. The doctor said that surgery was likely. Not only was Bynes' season in jeopardy, but he feared his career might be over before really getting started.
"I busted out crying after I heard that," Bynes said. "It was tough."
His mind started racing.
Would he play football again? Would he have long-term damage? What would he do if his career was over?
Specialists looked over Bynes' tests to determine the best course of action and the doctor eventually returned with much better news. It didn't look like Bynes would need surgery after all.
In fact, all he needed was time.
The next five months were a whirlwind for Bynes, and even he admits he's surprised with where he is now.
He worked his way back to the football field, took a spot on the Ravens practice squad, was promoted to the active roster, embraced a role as a special teamer, and was eventually called into action in the middle of the Ravens' injury-riddled defense.
On Sunday, Bynes earned his first NFL start, playing Ray Lewis' middle linebacker spot against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.
"I can't believe I'm back here playing football," Bynes said. "All the sudden it's here and I started my first game last week. It's crazy. It's an unbelievable feeling."
Road Back To The Football Field
Bynes suffered the injury in late July, before the start of the preseason. The second-year undrafted linebacker out of Auburn was having a strong camp, but getting hurt put his hopes of making the 53-man roster on hold. His first priority was to simply get healthy again.
For the next couple of weeks, Bynes was limited to his couch and couldn't do much beyond applying ice and watching TV. His fiancée, Briana, followed doctors' orders and maintained a strict ice routine for Bynes.
"Without her I don't think I would have survived and made it through the injury," Bynes said. "That was the best help ever."
When he wasn't able to get to the Under Armour Performance Center during training camp, he would call Inside Linebackers Coach Don Martindale and teammates Jameel McClain and Dannell Ellerbe almost every day to talk football. Eventually, Bynes was fitted for a back brace that kept him upright when he walked and was able to get to the facility for treatment.
He gradually started to make a recovery and worked his way back to the field. But once he was healthy again, that wasn't the end of the adversity.
He ended up getting cut from the roster at the end of training camp, and was added to the practice squad the next day. It was his third stint on the practice squad, as he's been cut by the Ravens three times and had three different stints on the practice squad.
"It's crazy coming from the practice squad, being released and all the other things," Bynes said. "I leaned on my teammates for support."
Bynes spent the next six weeks on the practice squad to start the year before getting called up to the 53-man roster for the Week 7 matchup with the Texans. Since getting that call, Bynes has been active in every game.
"Finally I got the opportunity to come up and it was great," Bynes said. "Coming from hurting my back to all of the sudden playing, that was a good thing."
A Chance In The Spotlight
When Bynes went undrafted in 2011, the Ravens were quick to get him on the phone. The middle linebacker was a three-year starter and defensive captain for an Auburn team that had just won a national championship, and the Ravens thought he could possibly follow in the line of undrafted linebackers like Jameel McClain, Dannell Ellerbe, Albert McClellan and Bart Scott to make the roster.
"He's a guy that we went after hard as an undrafted free agent," Assistant General Manager Eric DeCosta said.
What most attracted the Ravens to Bynes was his mental approach. He had a command of the defense and a strong understanding of the game.
"The thing we saw about Josh right away, A) he is physical, and B) he is really smart," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "Josh is a guy who's got a real high football IQ. He gets the game, and that's where I think his strength is."
That commitment to the mental side has paid dividends for Bynes and was a big reason the Ravens had confidence to insert him into a critical role last Sunday. With Lewis, McClain and Ellerbe all sitting out because of injury, the Ravens turned to Bynes to step in at middle linebacker.
As part of the job, Bynes wore the helmet with an earpiece so that he could relay calls in from the sidelines. In just this first NFL start, Bynes was leading a Ravens defense against a future Hall of Famer in Manning.
"When I stepped out there, I was very confident in what I was doing and I let the team know I was confident," Bynes said. "That gave them the feeling that, 'Oh, Josh is confident, he's able to take on the responsibility that's given to him.' As a middle linebacker, that's what you do."
He was holding down Lewis' spot in the middle of the defense, stepping in for the most iconic player in franchise history.
"I haven't thought about it as playing Ray Lewis' position," Bynes said. "I've been playing Mike linebacker all my life. I know how it feels because everyone in the Ravens organization, the Ravens fan base, in Baltimore, people know that middle linebacker has always been Ray Lewis' position for the last 17 years. And that's true. But at the same time, when I went out there on Sunday, when I was the starter, it was my position and I handled it as me not trying to be Ray Lewis, or this other person that people want me to be. No, I'm going to be Josh Bynes. That's all I can be and that's all the coaches and players and all everybody asks of me."
Bynes played at a high level in his first start, leading the Ravens with 13 tackles, including 11 solo stops. But after getting that first start, Bynes' role for the rest of the season is still very much up in the air.
Lewis and Ellerbe could both return this week, which would likely drop Bynes out of the starting lineup. Bynes said that he doesn't expect to be guaranteed a starting job and that he thinks he's constantly fighting to keep his spot on the roster.
He has prepared each week like he's going to start, and he doesn't plan to change his approach after that dream to crack the starting lineup came true for the first time last week.
"One game as a starter doesn't make me a whole, complete veteran or anything like that. I still have to improve and I still have a long ways to go. I'm young and I have a whole lot of ways to improve," Bynes said. "It's just a blessing and I'm loving this opportunity. Hopefully it just keeps on going."