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  • Ryan Jensen, Pro-Bowl NFL Center: Stem Cell Treatment
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Ryan Jensen, Pro-Bowl NFL Center: Stem Cell Treatment

TAMPA, Fla. — A scream — a high-pitched scream that stops all other sounds.

No more cheering, no more traffic noise, no more chirping of birds.

Ryan Jensen lies on the ground.

The Bucs are in their second day of training camp, practicing without pads in front of fans at AdventHealth Training Center.

In the last period of the day, a two-minute drill, Jensen was taking on a bull rush from defensive tackle Vita Vea when defensive lineman Logan Hall lost his footing and fell on the outside of Jensen’s left leg.

Now the center’s knee feels like it’s riddled with bullets.

But it isn’t the pain that makes him scream. It’s about what that pain could mean.

Jensen looks down. His kneecap is on the side of his leg, which is bent outward in a way it is not supposed to turn. He can hear everything, which is nothing but whispering and murmuring.

For about five minutes, he is surrounded by medical personnel and teammates. All eyes in the crowd are on him, but Jensen feels more alone than he’s felt in 31 years.

Jensen is lifted onto a cart and driven away to what sounds like a golf clap. As the cart approaches the training room, he tells the EMT to get out of the way — hurry!

He vomits.

To prepare for an X-ray, they try to straighten his leg. It is the worst pain he has ever experienced. But it doesn’t hurt as much as the anger, fear and doubt he feels.

Everyone tells him he is going to be OK. He doesn’t believe them.

On a pair of crutches, Jensen makes his way out of the X-ray room. Standing there, awaiting the results, are general manager Jason Licht, head coach Todd Bowles, assistant coaches and a group of front office people.

He thinks about those people who guide the Bucs. He thinks about the team’s owners who have invested so much in him. And his teammates. He thinks about his family. Even his friends. Then there are those fans who wear his jerseys and the kids who look up to him. He’s letting all of them down. And he never felt more vital to them all.

The concern now is artery damage. Jensen is rushed to a nearby imaging center for a CT scan and ultrasound. No unusual bleeding is detected. He undergoes an MRI and returns to the Bucs’ facility.

In the trainers’ room, Jensen is met with somber looks. The results from the MRI are in.

Bobby Slater is more than the team trainer to Jensen. He is someone Jensen has been real and raw with, and someone who has earned his trust.

Jensen: “Just tell me, man.”

Slater: “There’s a lot.”

Jensen: “Like, done for the year?”

Slater: “Yeah. Maybe more.”

Jensen: “More?”

Slater: “We can’t really tell about your ACL. It’s torn, but we’re not sure if it’s totally torn. Your PCL is torn. Your MCL is torn all the way through. Your lateral meniscus has a bucket handle tear, and it’s flipped into the back nodule of your joint. You have a tibial head fracture and a cartilage fracture in your knee. So there are six major injuries.”

The big man lets it out. For a few minutes, he just cries.

Slater hugs him.

“I’m done,” Jensen thinks to himself. “This season is over. I’m never stepping on a football field again. Maybe I’ll never walk normally.”

He’s done.

Unless, of course, something unprecedented happens.

Ryan Jensen and Tom Brady embrace on the field before their playoff game against the Cowboys on Jan. 16. (Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images)

The first teammates Jensen sees after his conversation with Slater are quarterbacks Tom Brady and Blaine Gabbert, who come to the training room to check on him.

“Hey,” the quarterback beyond his expiration date says to him, “don’t worry, I’ve got an ACL you can have.”

Jensen does not want to be cheered up. He asks a favor of Brady — be nice to Robert Hainsey, the second-year player expected to replace Jensen.

He sees the disappointment in Brady’s brows.

Brady has been dealing with a lot of disappointment. Since last season, the coach who brought Brady to Tampa walked away. The tight end whose routes and hands he trusted the most called it quits. His marriage of 13 years crumbled. And now this.

The injury was hard for Brady to watch.

“When he initially got hurt, it was a very difficult blow to our team because of what he means to our offense,” Brady tells The Athletic. 

It was especially difficult for Brady, who always had high standards for his center. Fifteen minutes after Brady became a Buccaneer in 2020, he FaceTimed Jensen. After some small talk, Brady got to the point. He wanted the football snapped to him without sweat on it and explained how to avoid “swamp butt” by heaping baby powder on a hand towel, folding it twice and stuffing it between the cheeks.

Jensen preferred to wear a glove on his snapping hand, but Brady talked him into going bare-handed. He advised Jensen on how to deal with injuries and connected him with his personal trainer Alex Guerrero.

Losing Jensen was a big deal because he was a Pro Bowler, the second-highest-paid center in the NFL and the key to protecting the best quarterback who ever graced a football field. And Jensen wasn’t just a blocker — he was an igniter.

More than most, Jensen made his football career happen by force of will.

He was a first-team all-state player at Fort Morgan High School in Colorado, but as a 6-foot-4, 215-pound lineman, he was offered by only two colleges, both Division II schools. He went to Colorado State-Pueblo, a school that had not produced an NFL draft pick in nearly 30 years.

As an undersized offensive tackle, Jensen had to do more than other players to survive, so he competed harder and tried to annoy opponents to get them to lose composure. In his college career, Jensen gained about 100 pounds but didn’t lose his playing style. It served him even better when he had muscle behind it.

It left an impression on an NFL scout who visited the CSU-Pueblo campus to look at another player. He told Jensen if he kept playing the way he was playing, he could end up in an NFL camp.

Despite not being invited to the combine, Jensen was chosen in the sixth round of the NFL Draft by Baltimore, where he made it clear he was not the type who would sit back and let things come to him.

His agent, Mike McCartney, also represented Haloti Ngata, a respected veteran in the locker room and one of the most powerful defensive players in the league. McCartney instructed Jensen to show Ngata the proper respect and avoid poking the bear.

What did Jensen do on the first day of practice? Goaded Ngata into a brawl.

Jensen broke his foot the next day and sat out most of his rookie year. In his second season, he was cut and spent most of the year on the practice squad. He didn’t break through in his first four seasons, but he kept giving the Ravens reasons to notice him.

“He competed every day even when others weren’t,” says Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta, who drafted Jensen and made him a center. “He was just one of the better competitors we’ve had.”

After becoming a starter in 2017, Jensen’s contract was up, and 18 teams expressed interest. He ultimately chose the Bucs over the Colts and kept competing harder than everyone, finishing blocks the way Pavarotti finished songs.

They say an offensive lineman isn’t supposed to be noticed when doing his job. Jensen, with shoulder-length hair the color of a bonfire and a way of continuing to move after everyone else has stopped, is an exception to that rule.

For Jensen, it’s about never backing down. “It’s trying to break the will of the guy across from me by playing through the whistle, driving him, putting him in the dirt, hitting him hard and talking s—,” he says. “It’s the extra little push, not letting go, playing a mind game.”

Ryan Jensen, center, earned a reputation as someone who doesn’t back down with the Ravens, who drafted him in the sixth round in 2013. (Andrew Weber / Getty Images)

In the days after Jensen’s injury, five doctors, to no one’s surprise, recommended surgery.

But McCartney, his agent, wasn’t satisfied with what he was hearing. About a year earlier, McCartney had disc surgery to relieve numbness and weakness. The surgery didn’t help, but a subsequent stem cell treatment did.

Chad Prodromos, the Chicago-area doctor who treated McCartney with stem cells, once worked for the Patriots and edited a textbook on the science and reconstruction of ACLs. Last year, after 38 years of surgery, he retired his scalpel to focus on regenerative medicine and stem cell treatment. Prodromos told McCartney he did not recommend surgery for Jensen because of the extent of his injuries.

“Having been a knee surgeon, I know that when you try to fix all of these structures at once, you can get tremendous amounts of scarring, a loss of motion, and the results are often not good,” Prodromos says.

He referred McCartney and Jensen to Don Shelbourne, an Indianapolis orthopedic doctor who pioneered the non-operative approach that Prodromos thought would work for Jensen.

Shelbourne concurred with Prodromos that surgery might not be necessary; his research has shown tears of the MCL and PCL can heal with immobilization and therapy, and the ACL needs repair only if completely torn. Whether Jensen’s ACL was completely torn wouldn’t be known for two months while the swelling subsided.

Prodromos also believed stem cell infusion could strengthen Jensen’s ligaments and accelerate healing.

If everything goes well, Prodromos and Shelbourne told him, Jensen should be able to resume his career in September of 2023. Both doctors strongly advised him to forget about the 2022 season.

Shelbourne put Jensen in a cast from his ankle to upper thigh with his knee bent at a 23-degree angle. He was told to remain relatively inactive for nine days, so he stayed at the J.W. Marriott in Indianapolis. His wife, Stephanie, returned to their children, Wyatt and Eliza, in Florida, which left Jensen with a lot of time to think, probably too much. What he pondered mostly was the possibility of retiring.

He had incentive to quit. Before the 2021 season, he took out an insurance policy that covered him for a career-ending injury. By retiring while injured, he could collect a $5 million payout. What’s more, $23 million of his contract was guaranteed whether he played or not.

He already has a post-football life lined up as he is a manager and part-owner of HGC Design Build, a residential development firm founded by former NFL offensive lineman Garrett Gilkey.

In his hotel room with the cast on his leg, Jensen watched a video of the day he was drafted. It brought pause.

“I see the pure excitement I had for getting taken with pick number 203,” he says. “You would have thought I was the first overall pick.”

From the J.W. Marriott, Jensen ordered a monitor from Best Buy and had Door Dash deliver it to his room so he could play “Call of Duty.” He binge-watched TV shows, streaming “Breaking Bad” from start to finish for the sixth time. He kept the Uber Eats drivers coming. In nine days, he gained 12 pounds.

Despite the weight gain, his leg shriveled as the swelling went down. Near the end of his time in the hotel, Jensen could stick his arm into the cast and feel his knee.

After the cast was cut off, tests showed the joint was nearly 60 percent more stable.

Jensen returned to Tampa and rehabbed under the direction of Slater and Guerrero. Eight weeks after the injury, another MRI showed his MCL ligament looking more like rope than the shredded chicken it initially resembled. The test revealed only a slight tear in the ACL, which meant Jensen could avoid surgery.

The first week of November, Jensen flew to the Caribbean island of Antigua to be injected with 150 million stem cells taken from umbilical cords donated from term Cesarean section births. Jensen was warned he might feel cold because the stem cells were frozen in liquid nitrogen. After the third and final IV bag was emptied, he started shivering uncontrollably. Fifteen minutes wrapped in a heated blanket made everything right.

In the coming weeks, Jensen experienced “weird sensations.” He had torn the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow a couple of times, and he now felt soreness and vibrations in the joint. He experienced similar feelings in other places where he likely has inflammation — his back, feet, ankles — and finally, his knee.

In the following month, Jensen kept passing tests — he was able run on an antigravity treadmill and push a sled, first in the weight room and then on the field. He took some pass sets to work on his feet. The first time he ran on grass, he felt like a foal. But by the third time, his stride was back.

“Bobby told me I should expect swelling as I amped things up, but I wasn’t swelling,” Jensen says. “He’s like, ‘This is working. I don’t understand why, but it’s working.’”

There is no circumstance, his doctors kept saying, in which Jensen should consider playing in the 2022 season.

But Jensen thought about proving people wrong, about how he might be able to help a struggling team that still had postseason dreams, and about Brady.

The season had been a slog for his quarterback, who was under stress and lost 15 pounds, according to ESPN’s Jeff Darlington. In late December, Bucs practice squad quarterback Ryan Griffin told Jensen he could give the team a lift just by being designated to return from injured reserve even if he didn’t actually return.

“Maybe that will ignite a fire under some people,” Griffin tells him. “It will make 12 (Brady) happy and give him some hope. It could help get him on a roll.”

Being classified as designated to return would preclude Jensen from collecting the $5 million from his insurance policy, but by then he had ruled out walking away.

“To quit would be disrespectful to that kid from 10 years ago who was so excited to be drafted,” he says. “It would be disrespectful to everything my parents sacrificed to get me to that point. It would be disrespectful to my kids, who I tell to finish everything they start. It is the easy way out, but it would be disrespectful to everything I stand for.”

Jensen brought Griffin’s idea to Slater. The trainer was hesitant but agreed with the understanding that Jensen would not be playing. On Dec. 28, Jensen was classified as designated to return, which enabled the team to evaluate him as he practiced for 21 days.

In his first week of practice, Jensen participated only in individual drills. The first two days of his second week, it was more of the same.

And then Brady had something to say.

“You doing too much?” he asked Jensen. “You going to get hurt out here? How does it feel to be lollygagging with a helmet on, acting like you are a football player?”

Brothers can talk that way to one another. Brady and Jensen are brothers, and they laughed.

But in those digs are a challenge.

The next day, Jensen lined up with the scout team in a light practice. It felt good to be moving with players all around him, and it gave him confidence. In the aftermath, however, was extreme soreness.

The following Sunday, the Bucs played their last game of the regular season, then they turned their attention to playing the Cowboys in the playoffs.

Guerrero was doing body work on Jensen on Monday. Jensen still wasn’t sure if he should play. He would need a push if he was going to attempt it.

And in walked Brady.

“What do you think,” he said. “Are you going to try to play?”

Guerrero and Brady pressed him. According to Jensen, Guerrero told him his ligaments were strong enough and that it was more about mental scar tissue for Jensen than physical scar tissue. Was it healed? Will it ever be?

“It was a motivation tactic they knew I needed,” Jensen says. “I said, ‘OK, watch this.’”

The next day, Jensen went for another MRI. Everything looked fine. He spoke with Licht to ensure team management was on board with him playing. Jensen practiced and felt relatively normal.

Less than six months after blowing out his knee, Ryan Jensen started against the Cowboys in the playoffs. “Ryan showed what he’s all about and his commitment to the team,” Tom Brady said. “That’s what champions do.” (Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images)

One hundred seventy-two days after a knee injury so severe that it made him question if he’d ever walk normally again, Jensen started a game.

It wasn’t his best performance, and the Bucs lost, but for Jensen, it was a victory in almost every way, one of the great victories of his life.

After, Bucs guard Shaq Mason told Jensen he never saw anything like it, and that he was honored to share the field with him. As Brady prepared to leave the postgame locker room, he kissed Jensen on the head, hugged him and told him how proud of him he is.

“I love Ryan and his determination to come back,” says Brady, who announced his retirement Wednesday. “It was a huge mental boost for our team to see him working as hard as he did to get back on the field to play with his teammates. … It was a significant injury that he overcame, and I’m so happy he was able to come back for the playoff game. Although the outcome wasn’t great for our team, there was much to be gained from the experience for us all. Ryan showed what he’s all about and his commitment to the team. That’s what champions do.”

Some champions go where others have not and provide a path for those who follow. Other athletes will choose to avoid surgery on multi-ligament knee injuries in the future and undergo stem cell therapy instead. And their doctors will cite Ryan Jensen.

“Ryan’s treatment protocol combining regenerative medicine — stem cell treatment in this case — with traditional care is a model of how this combined approach can provide outcomes that may be better than each technique alone,” Prodromos says.

Prodromos thinks Shelbourne’s approach would have resulted in a strong knee without stem cells. But he believes the stem cells factored in his ability to return to playing so quickly. The word Prodromos uses to describe the speed of Jensen’s recovery is “unprecedented.”

Jensen’s knee feels almost normal now, and with continued rehab and strengthening, the expectation is it will serve him well next season and beyond.

Having football taken from him reminded Jensen how much he loves it. In the minutes before the playoff game began, it became more clear.

Being introduced as a starter always has felt like an honor to Jensen. But after hearing your name nearly 100 times, it becomes routine. And that’s OK because there are advantages to being dispassionate.

But this one was different.

As Jensen ran from the tunnel at Raymond James Stadium, the crowd roared as if he were Brady at the Super Bowl.



A fluttering heart.

A light head.

As the cheers continued and the high-fives and hugs enveloped him, it felt like Jensen was doing something that never had been done before.

And really, he was.