John Niyo: Lions LB Zack Follett is back, thankful and pumped up

John Niyo

Allen Park — The first time the lockout ended — and the doors closed almost as soon as they’d opened in April — linebacker Zack Follett was one of a handful of players who managed to get into the Lions practice facility.

“He showed up and then they shut it down about two hours later,” laughed Matt Burke, the team’s linebackers coach. “So I actually saw him for about five minutes is all.”

That was enough, though. Enough for Follett to show not that he was ready to play football again — he wasn’t, he readily admits now — but that he was still hoping to be.

And after the team had extended him a contract offer before the lockout in early March, he figured that was the least he could do.

“I wanted to show them that, since they gave me this opportunity, I’m going to be diligent and do what I need to do,” Follett said. “I’m not going to be slacking off.”

Friday, he showed them he’d made good on that promise, at least. Nine months after suffering a career-threatening neck injury that left him momentarily paralyzed, Follett was back on the practice field as the Lions kicked off training camp.

“I never thought I’d have a helmet on again,” said Follett, who received full medical clearance Thursday after meeting with the Lions medical staff and passing a conditioning test. “This is a big blessing, and I’m very thankful.

“It felt good, running around and getting back on the field, something that when this all happened I thought wouldn’t be a possibility. And to be honest, because of the way my neck felt earlier this year, I was ready to hang it up.”

Follett was ready, if not willing, because his body wasn’t — or so it seemed — months after he took a blindside hit from Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul while covering a kickoff last October. The hit left him without feeling in his extremities, and it was only after he’d been carted off the field on a backboard and taken to a local hospital that he regained full movement in his arms and legs.

His season was over, his career in jeopardy.

Heart trumps doubt

“Something serious like that, I definitely wasn’t even looking to play football anymore,” said Follett, a 2009 seventh-round pick out of Cal who quickly became a fan favorite in Detroit, as much for his brash talk as his reckless style of play, including that highlight-reel hit on Rams receiver Danny Amendola as a rookie.

Follett, wearing his homemade “Pain Train is Coming” T-shirt in the locker room Friday, acknowledged as much as he thanked the fans for their support, saying, “With them believing in me just over pretty much one hit in my career, I mean, it shows a lot.”

The neck injury, though it didn’t require surgery, did require months of rehabilitation. Follett saw a specialist in North Carolina and another in Ohio after consulting with team physicians in Detroit. He worked with a rehab specialist near his offseason home in Fresno, Calif., as well. But persistent pain this winter left him seriously doubting his future, even after the Lions offered him a one-year contract as an exclusive-rights free agent.

“I signed right before the lockout, and it got me all gung-ho, so I went into the weight room and tried to lift weights and it still didn’t feel right,” he said. “So I got discouraged.”

And if you know Follett — this Gospel-spreading, freestyle-rapping free spirit — you know that didn’t feel right.

“You know the type of kid he is, that he’s going to want to do whatever he can to get back,” Burke said. “But it was a pretty big unknown. We were sitting in meetings talking about guys and it was like, ‘What about Follett?’ Nobody really knew. But I was really happy to see him out there today. It’s a pleasant surprise.”

Ready to win spot

There were many happy returns Friday in Allen Park. Football’s back in business, and the players — most of them, anyway — are back to work. But no one’s more pleased than Follett, though he’s well aware all he has been given is a chance to keep playing.

A roster spot, he’ll have to earn. And he’ll have his work cut out to do that, a year after he was essentially handed a starting job in training camp. The Lions already have added one free-agent linebacker in Justin Durant, who’ll likely start alongside DeAndre Levy, and they may add another soon, with veteran starters Nick Barnett and Stephen Tulloch among the possibilities.

“Coming in my rookie year, I had my head on backward,” Follett said. “Coming in my second year, trying to start and having that pressure was tough. … Now, there’s really no pressure. No one expects anything of me because of where I’m coming from. So I have no monkey on my back. I can just go out there and play.”

But can he still play the way he used to, flying down the field on special teams or filling the gap in run support, knowing what he knows after last fall’s scare?

“Anyone could have that one play that puts ’em in the hospital or whatever,” said Follett, who checked in at 238 pounds Friday and “looked good,” according to coach Jim Schwartz. “But I definitely feel like I’m protected. I wouldn’t be coming back if I didn’t feel that way.

“I’ll try to be smart keeping my head up, but as far as going out there and playing soft? I read that in an article that he’ll probably be playing scared, and they obviously don’t know me. I got here not on my athletic ability, but on my heart and desire and love for the game. If that was a question in my mind, then I wouldn’t come back. But I feel good and I’m ready to go out there and prove it.”

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