When Jalen Redmond returned to the Oklahoma football team last year to help his teammates prepare for their game against Florida in the Gator Bowl, he still didn’t know for sure if he would be safe.
Ultimately, he determined the risk was worth the reward.
“I didn't think I was going to be able to come back until January or whenever we came back,” Redmond said Tuesday on a video press conference. “But when they approached me with it, I honestly just jumped forward.”
That’s how badly he missed football as he sat out the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns. He missed the games, he missed practices, he missed his team — he just missed being around it all.
“Watching the games, it was hard,” Redmond said. “I wanted to be out there with those guys and I'm back so I'm happy to be back now.”
Redmond’s concerns were more legitimate than most, rooted in his own recent health scare and what COVID experts warned as one of many preexisting health conditions.
“It's a respiratory thing,” Redmond said, “and with my past history with blood clots and those things, me and my family just thought it was the best idea to sit that one out. It was — shoot, one of the hardest decisions I had to make. Especially coming off the year before. It was a hard decision, but I knew I had to do what was right for my health and my body.”
Redmond was a breakout star in 2019, leading the Sooners with 6.5 quarterback sacks and ranking third on the team with 11 tackles for loss.
But that breakout season followed what was a significant health scare that cost him all of three games in 2018: blood clots.
“It's been hard,” Redmond said. “I’ve got a good support system on my side. I know if I need to talk to anybody about anything, I've got people to go talk to. It was hard with everything popping up. I felt like I honestly couldn't catch a break. But I fought through it. I think I did pretty good at handling it. I'm just ready to get back to work.”
Redmond played that 2019 season at 266 pounds. Now he’s at 284 and could still swing to either defensive end on the outside or mix things up in the middle at tackle. He said the extra weight is a result of an entire offseason-plus of hitting the weights. He said working out was his way of coping, of staying busy.
When d-line coach Calvin Thibodeax asked Redmond if he might consider coming back to work the scout team ahead of the Cotton Bowl, “I was like, 'Of course,’ ” Redmond said. “It was no doubt in my mind I wanted to practice and come back with the guys. Not even thinking about traveling to the games, I just wanted to be back out there with them.”
His teammates have benefited from having Redmond on the field again.
“I love having Jalen back,” said noseguard Perrion Winfrey. “He was here the year before I came, so just having him here, having his — what is the word? — presence on the field, makes everything much easier. Because he was here when things were a little bit harder. So he knows what’s needed to be great. He knows what’s needed to go to the playoffs. He’s been in those big games. He’s made those big plays. So just having him around, having him able to help all of us, telling us the things we need to do and the things we shouldn’t do, it just makes all of us even better.”
“I’m extremely excited to have him back,” said end and tackle Isaiah Thomas, Redmond's best friend and roommate. “It was a roller coaster for him, emotionally, I would say, because with him opting out, it was hard on him. Because he wanted to be out there with us.”
Defensive ends coach Jamar Cain said last week that he watched how Lincoln Riley and Thibodeaux “just put their arms around this kid and … just keep bringing him in closer to them. That’s what he needed.”
Cain was new last year and so only got to know Redmond a little.
“I just got to know J-Red from just being up in the office talking to Thibs weekly,” Cain said. “I would just walk by him and say, ‘Hey, you doing all right?’ and just smile. I’m like, ‘Don’t let nobody take that smile away from you.’ … He was in a good, good place. And now, to see him out there in practice and see the energy that he brings and — smiles are infectious — he’s just got this biggest grin on his face and he seems happy. He seems like he’s at peace now.
“Last year, he’s just, ‘Should I smile? Should I not smile?’ Now, he just sees himself at peace.”
That positive attitude is serving Redmond well. He’s turning almost two full years of fear over legitimate, serious health concerns into a positive.
“Missing my first year here was a big motivation,” he said. “Back then, I didn't know if I was going to get to play football again half the time. So missing this season, it did me a big favor. I'm hungry. I'm ready to attack this thing and make it happen.”