The toughest part for Joe Walker was the seclusion.
While the 24-year-old linebacker was still tangentially a part of the team during his rookie season, he wasn't around his teammates nearly as much as he would have liked. Sure, in the afternoons he'd join his fellow linebackers in the film room.
But every morning, when his teammates were on the practice field, Walker was tucked away inside the NovaCare Complex, far away from the sun and grass and football smell, as he rehabbed from his torn ACL.
"It was tedious," Walker said on Tuesday about his rehab. "Definitely tedious."
The 2016 seventh-round pick out of Oregon wasn't just going to make the Eagles' roster last year, he was set to be the team's backup middle linebacker behind Jordan Hicks. He had impressed the team's coaches that much during OTAs, training camp and the preseason, but tore his ACL in the preseason game against the Steelers and was lost for the season.
"It's tough whenever you get injured, no matter where you are on the depth chart," he said.
After the injury, the team went out and signed veteran Stephen Tulloch for the year as the backup MIKE and Walker began the long process of getting back on the field.
That process is still ongoing. While Walker has been on the field the last couple weeks during OTAs, he isn't yet fully cleared. He's been participating in practice, but is limited to individual position drills and isn't yet allowed to join team drills; that's the next step. In about a week and a half, he'll have another visit to his doctor "and see where we are from there."
It looks promising that Walker will be a full-go by the time the team gets to training camp in the summer.
While the last year has been a tough road for Walker, it's nothing new to him. In his senior year of high school, Walker tore his labrum and was forced to rehab his shoulder during a gray-shirt year in 2011 at L.A. Harbor, a junior college near his Southern California home. During that time, without a D-I scholarship, he rehabbed, went to class and worked a construction job (see story).
Just as it looked like Walker was going to make it in the NFL last year, he suffered another serious injury. That might have crushed some young players, but Walker pretty much took it all in stride. Instead of spending his offseason in California, he stayed local and continued his rehab.
He tried to make the most of his redshirt season. In addition to growing out his hair and beard in Jesus-like fashion, Walker also spent a lot of time in the film room.
"I think I utilized my time pretty wisely," he said. "There are a lot of things you can do like film study, just watching the guys every day during practice. Watching a guy like Jordan Hicks, who is doing everything right, just trying to emulate him."
The good news for Walker is that the linebacker depth hasn't changed much in his year away, so there's still a good chance for him to make the team and reclaim his spot on the depth chart and as a special teams player. Things don't always happen that way.
If Walker needs a reminder of the volatile nature of the NFL, he need only turn to the empty locker stall next to his that fellow linebacker Steven Daniels occupied until his release on Thursday morning (see story). Daniels, like Walker, was returning from a rookie-season-ending injury after also being a seventh-round pick a year ago (to Washington) - 19 spots before Walker.
Daniels' recovery will need to continue with another team, but Walker is hoping he'll be able to make the Eagles' roster and have a big role with the team that drafted him.
First thing's first, though. And it won't be long until he's able to be a full practice participant with his teammates again.
"I'm looking forward to it, man," Walker said smiling. "It's been a long year of just watching."