When Carson Wentz scrambled, dove for the end zone and got sandwiched from the left and right by two Rams tacklers in Week 14 last year, Chris Maragos cringed. The Eagles special teamer saw the angle of the defenders and the quarterback’s knee helplessly pinned between them. It was ominously familiar to Maragos. “Oh no, I think Carson just hurt himself,” Maragos whispered to his wife, hoping he was wrong about what he thought he saw.
Wentz gingerly walked back to the huddle, played three more plays and finished with a touchdown pass. To the naked eye, Wentz looked just fine, but Maragos was sure of the damage. “With the way he got hit, he’s hurt,” Maragos muttered as he watched Wentz leave the game. Maragos was watching the game from his couch in Philadelphia, and Wentz’s hit looked just like the forced twist that ended his own season about a month earlier with a torn ACL and PCL.
Those instincts were right. Wentz became the fourth Eagles player to go down with an ACL injury in 2017. “For our team to battle through that many injuries with key players and then for him to get hurt like that, it was heartbreaking,” Maragos says. “You just felt horrible for him.”
Last season the surprising emergence of backup QB Nick Foles in the Eagles’ first-ever Super Bowl victory overshadowed another compelling storyline—how the team won it all with five integral players out for the season with injuries. Wentz, Maragos, Jason Peters, Jordan Hicks and Darren Sproles—three of whom were Philadelphia team captains in 2017—all went down within 11 weeks of each other and didn’t play in Super Bowl LII.
“I thought it was a bad dream,” says Sproles, who says he’s never been on a team with so many season-ending injuries to important players. “I was like, We got so many! I don’t know how we’re going to finish the year.”
But they did. And now, six months later, the severity and close timing of those injuries created an unlikely clique representing five position groups, all bound together by the unfortunate reality of the long rehab process. “We were able to encourage each other and challenge each other,” says Wentz. “None of us want to be there but it helps that we are all in there together.”
The quintet, whom Hicks dubbed “Club Rehab,” made the best of the bleak winter filled with endless repetitions of straight leg raises, quad sets, and prone hangs. The members reported for treatment at the NovaCare Complex around 8:30 a.m. every Monday through Friday last season, and typically stayed after their treatment was finished, sitting in the sauna or, depending on their progress, shooting hoops together. When their teammates dispersed across the country in February, all they had was each other—and each guy quickly fell into his own role within the group dynamic.
Peters is well-known among his Eagles’ teammates as The Bodyguard, but in the training room, he was The Godfather. “Whatever JP says goes,” says Hicks. “I've been fined”—he drops air quotes around “fined”—“for being late. I wasn’t actually late, but if you walk in after him you’re late.”
The Godfather’s catchphrase during rehab was “Write ’em up!” If someone was late or slow in finishing a workout, Peters would hand out a “fine.”
“If you walked in two seconds late, he’d say, ‘That’s a thousand a second!’” Maragos says. Peters used the whiteboard in the Eagles training room to keep track of all the various fines, and by the end of the winter, the board was covered in a running list of the kangaroo court citations. Luckily, The Godfather was lenient in collecting dues, and no one ever had to pay up.
Sproles was tough but uplifting, the life coach of the bunch. He created a healthy sense of competition to prevent any slacking among his guys. “He'll let everybody know that he is working harder than you and if you're not working as hard as him then you need to step your game up,” Hicks says. “We get to the facility at the same time, and Sproles will be finished with his workout about when me and Chris [Maragos] are walking in to the gym to start.”
“When you are in the training room, most people are down,” says Sproles. “They don’t want to be in there. I was the one that kept everybody up. I’d say whatever came to mind that day.”
Maragos was the club’s resident deejay, who went by DJ Gos. He’d play a selection of early 2000s rap, some Nelly, 50 Cent, Lil Jon, Big Tymers. DJ Gos would often take requests and he and Peters loved to stage DJ battles, alternating tracks back and forth to see who could play the best of old school hip hop.
Though only 26, Hicks was an old pro when it came to injury rehab, serving as sort of the glue of the group. Hicks had been in and out of the training room before he tore his Achilles’ tendon, and spent the second half of his rookie season in 2015 on IR with a torn pectoral muscle. Because he was familiar with the brutal shock of a season-ending injury, he made it his mission to be there for each guy after he found out his season was over.
And Wentz was the Type-A member who, in the end, had to go off and set his own (faster) pace. Early in his rehab when he was still mostly immobile, Wentz hung out with Hicks and Maragos while they completed their workouts. But once he was able to work out on his own, he quickly abandoned his two talkative teammates who went through their therapy exercises at a pace much too leisurely for him.
“[Wentz] was like, ‘You guys are way too slow, you talk too much, I gotta get my work done,’” laughs Hicks. “So he did his own thing. [Maragos] is like the governor, he talks to everybody. So we’re in there talking, and Carson is already done, and he’s like, ‘Are you guys coming or not?’”
Typically, a player with a season-ending injury rehabs alone and spends much of his time in isolation while his healthy teammates attend meetings and practices. But if there’s a silver lining to losing a handful of players to the same injury in the same season (with the exception of Hicks, who tore his Achilles’ tendon), it’s that each player can offer advice to the next. “We were pretty in the know about everyone's rehab and where they are at in their comeback,” Wentz says. “It wasn't a good thing that we were in there together, but it served us well in our comebacks.”
Sproles underwent his ACL surgery first, followed by Peters a week-and-a-half later on Oct. 27. The offensive lineman called the running back to lament the process. ”JP was like, man, I don’t know.” Sproles says. “I told him, the thing is, right when you get your movement back, everything else is easy. That is the hardest part. You have to get your flexion and straightening back. You’re good after that.”
A few weeks later, The Godfather found himself lending guidance to Maragos, who had his surgery on Nov. 8. “He would tell me, ‘Hey, on day 14, you are going to feel like this,’ and then I would get to day 14 and it would be exactly like what he said,” Maragos says. “He’d say, ‘The surgical hard pain will be done on this day,’ and boom! Sure enough, you would wake up the next day and the surgical pain was gone.”
About a month after Maragos’s surgery, the special teamer took Wentz under his wing as the quarterback joined the rehab train. Maragos was not cleared to participate in mini-camp in June, so he watched Wentz closely as he worked in individual and team drills and gave him feedback. “When I see him move around I'm like, ‘Hey, you're not favoring anything,’” Maragos says. “I give him stuff as I see it because I know what he's feeling or thinking.”
And so the injured Eagles grinded through their therapy, cycling through a much more productive variation of the telephone game. Sproles passed down advice to Peters, who passed on feedback to Maragos, who then fed the wisdom to Wentz.
From California, Sproles regularly recorded videos of his rehab progress, like his first attempt at running after surgery, and texted them to Peters, Maragos and Hicks (Wentz was not yet injured at this point) to inspire his sidelined teammates. Maragos responded with his own video of him doing heel slides to break up scar tissue and get the range of motion back in his knee. Says Sproles: “We all were competing to see who could heal faster.”
“It’s a long, grueling recovery process,” Maragos says. “Unless you go through an injury like this you don’t really know what it takes to get back. We were all going through it together so we were able to put ourselves in each other’s shoes to encourage each other.”
Club Rehab faced their toughest challenge yet at Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis. No amount of 2000s rap music or fake fines could distract them from the fact they wouldn’t be playing in a game they’d dreamed about their entire careers. “Everybody at one time was so happy and genuinely ecstatic for our team but at the same time heartbroken because we felt like we couldn’t contribute and help our brothers out on the field,” Maragos says.
Even then, their shared experience—the knowledge that they weren’t alone—paid off. Each guy in the group was uniquely qualified to understand that gnawing feeling that they weren’t really a part of this Super Bowl title. On the sideline in Minneapolis, “Sproles and I would give each other a little shake of the head,” says Hicks, “and it was like, ‘I know, I know. We’ll be all right. Our time is coming.”
“It was a look like, Yo, we gotta get back here next year,” Sproles says. “We knew, right when we looked at each other. I can’t really explain it.”
The arrival of training camp means that time is now. Wentz participated in individual drills and seven-on-seven work at Eagles mini-camp in June. He looked mobile in the pocket, running and throwing without hesitation, and he reiterated that his goal is to be ready to start in the season opener. Hicks, Peters and Sproles took individual reps and were withheld from team reps at mini-camp. Maragos was not yet cleared to participate in mini-camp practices, but is expected to be ready for training camp.
And what of the club comraderie when Philly’s walking wounded return to their position groups? Will there be any separation anxiety? “Absolutely,” Maragos says. “We are in different position meetings throughout the day. I don’t see those guys. Even in practice, we’re in different areas of the field doing our individual work. I will see Carson and I’ll be like, Come on man, let’s work out together! I’ll see JP around and I’ll be like, man, I miss you bro!”
Though the band is breaking up, they'll always have their sideline look. This season with the players likely back on the field, that no-words head nod will mean something completely different.