No doubt that Nakamura is back

Ravens safety punctuates recovery from devastating broken right ankle

August 27, 2010|By Edward Lee, The Baltimore Sun

Haruki Nakamura's road to recovery began with a walk and ended with a run.

The run is perhaps the most memorable, a 51-yard scamper off a fake punt against the Washington Redskins Saturday night that included evading a takedown behind at the line of scrimmage, juking another would-be tackler, and finally running out of gas one yard short of the end zone.

The play, which led to the first offense's only touchdown of the preseason game, served to fully validate Nakamura's return from the gruesome broken right ankle suffered on the opening kickoff of a Monday night game against the Cleveland Browns on Nov. 16.

Behind the scenes though, Nakamura's renewal can be traced to the arrival of his daughter Hina, who, at the time of her father's injury, was five months old and already taking part in the beginning stages of cruising. The sobering realization that he might miss out on one of his daughter's milestones hit him hard.

"That kind of clicked something in my head, where I said, 'This can't happen. I can't let this part of my life escape me,'" Nakamura recalled Tuesday as the Ravens prepared to meet the New York Giants Saturday night. "I realized that I have a family now, I have someone to take care of, and that was a motivational factor that I never really had before. I have family, but I never had my own family. It kicked a whole other gear in for me."

Tom Zbikowski, one of Nakamura's closest friends on the team, said he noticed a change in his friend after Hina's birth.

"He really cares about his daughter," Zbikowski said. "Where I come from, that's all that really matters – family. We play sports, but family is everything. To see somebody care that much about his daughter, I always knew he was a good person, but it's always refreshing to see a person like that."

That doesn't mean that Nakamura didn't endure his share of doubts. His injury didn't merely involve a simple break. He dislocated the ankle, and the force of the physical contact broke his fibula and pinched the tendon on the muscle running down his lower leg. He also tore all his ankle ligaments and damaged nerves in the foot.

"It was one of those things where so many questions were popping up," Nakamura said. "Finally, I just said, 'I've got to silence my mind and focus on what is really going to help me get better. If I keep thinking of all the things that are wrong with me, I'm always going to think that I'm never going to get better.' So I really just sat back and got back to focusing."

Nakamura distracted himself by researching players who had endured similar injuries and returned to the NFL, notably former Ravens fullback Lorenzo Neal. He also used his time on the sideline to watch game film with his teammates and coaches and take what secondary coach Chuck Pagano likes to call "mental reps."

"If you're not getting the physical reps, you should always be taking the mental reps when the other guys are going," Pagano said. "So he had a chance to watch the other guys go. He spent a lot of time evaluating not only us, but also other guys in the league and learning from other safeties in the league."

Despite mild protests from the organization's coaching and medical staffs, Nakamura began practicing during the team's organized team activities in May and June. Since then, he has avoided the physically-unable-to-perform list, taking part in full-contact drills in training camp and playing in the first two preseason contests.

Nakamura's trials and tribulations have given way to a brighter future. He's second on the depth chart behind strong safety Dawan Landry and playing as if he is trying to regain last season.

He is scheduled to marry his fiancee Jamie on June 25 and just talking about 14-month-old Hina brings a smile to his face.

"I feel great," Nakamura said. "I'm probably in the best shape I've ever been, and the crazy thing is, I'm coming off an injury. I've been taking every step forward with a smile on my face and just been very grateful that I've been able to come back."

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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