GREEN BAY, Wis. – Billy Winn had three horrible seasons.
“Very horrible,” he confirmed.
But losing the 2017 and 2018 seasons due to a horrendous knee injury and the 2019 season with a torn triceps was nothing like what his wife is going through. So, when it appeared his football career was over, Brooke Winn pushed him to give it one more shot.
“She has lupus,” Winn, a backup defensive tackle for the Green Bay Packers, said after Thursday’s practice. “It’s an autoimmune disease that attacks all your organs. Just having her by my side every single day, driving me and pushing me to keep going, making sure I’m on top of my diet, making sure I’m on top of my cardio, that was just a real deciding factor. She was like, ‘You know what? I don’t think you’re done. You need to keep going.’ I said, ‘You know what? You’re right. I can do this.’ So, I kept going. That never-quit attitude.”
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That never-quit attitude paid off. On Sept. 16, he signed to the Packers’ practice squad. On Sept. 27, having been elevated to the roster for the game at the New Orleans Saints, he played in his first game in 1,365 days and batted down a pass.
A week later, Winn was elevated again to face Atlanta. Finally, last week, he was promoted to the 53-man roster for the game against Houston. He had two tackles in six snaps.
With an incredible comeback story, switching gears and getting a “real-world job” – he said he had started putting out “feelers” and was considering applying for an assistant athletics director job at University of California-Riverside – can wait.
After playing through a back injury with Indianapolis in 2016 – he calls that his “epidural year” – Winn joined Denver in free agency for the 2017 season. In the preseason opener, he sustained a torn ACL, MCL and meniscus. Not only did he miss the entire season but the injury left him without a contract in 2018.
“I was a free agent all year, so that kind of messed with me mentally,” Winn said. “I got to the point where it’s, ‘OK, where’s that fine line of what’s next for me?’”
At that point, Winn and his wife discussed his football future for the first time. They agreed he should keep working toward getting another shot. That opportunity came in April 2019, when he re-signed with the Broncos. However, in the Hall of Fame Game to kick off the preseason, he suffered a torn triceps.
A third consecutive season would pass without Winn playing in a regular-season game.
In a sport in which young and cheap will beat older and injured every time, the Broncos released him in March. Not long thereafter, the couple talked again about his football future.
“We were at home,” he recalled, “and I was thinking about it, ‘Do I really want to keep doing this? Do I want to keep grinding this out with the same outcome? Or do I want to find a real job and go that route?’ But she was like, ‘You know what? I don’t think you should end your career on an injury. Give it one more shot, see how you feel. If you get a job, great. If you don’t, then the real world starts and you go that route.’ Stuck with it, Green Bay called, here I go.”
Winn arrived to some familiar faces. A sixth-round pick out of Boise State by Cleveland in 2012, his final season with the team was 2014. That’s the year the Browns drafted current Packers linebacker Christian Kirksey and hired current Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine as coach.
“That’s a great story,” Pettine said after practice. “When I saw the list that he was coming in for the workout, I was like, ‘Is that the Billy Winn that I know?’ I knew he had been out for a stretch. It’s just a credit to him, somebody that goes through what he went through from an injury standpoint, just being able to work themselves back into shape and essentially will themselves onto an NFL team. And then what he brings to us is a guy that’s solid. He’s been in there, he does his job, he’s got a great perspective on the game. I’m happy for him. I’m happy for us that he’s here.”
While Winn had a lot of dark and painful days on the road to Green Bay, he didn’t have to look too far to find someone navigating a more difficult battle. Brooke, his wife of three years, has been grappling with lupus for more than 10 years.
According to the Mayo Clinic, lupus occurs when the immune system attacks the body’s tissues and organs. Daily fevers of 100-plus degrees and body pain are a part of her daily life.
“My worst days are normal days for her,” Winn said.
“I tell her this all the time,” he added. “I can never complain or will never complain about anything because it’ll never compare to the fight that she’s got to deal with on a regular basis. So, anytime I come home and am like, ‘Oh, this hurts,’ I try to keep it to myself because, at the end of the day, I know what she’s going through and it’s 100 times worse than what I’m going through.”