When Kawika Mitchell was carted off the field in Week 5 against Cleveland, fans immediately thought the worst, an ACL injury. But the veteran linebacker did not suffer any tendon or ligament damage after a helmet from Browns running back Jerome Harrison struck Mitchell's thigh as he made the tackle. The injury he did suffer however, still has him three months from returning to the field.
Mitchell's right quadriceps muscle was torn completely away from his knee cap on the play.
"It separated from the patella," Mitchell told Buffalobills.com. "It's a very unusual injury, but structurally everything in my knee is fine. A muscle injury makes for a better recovery. It actually is beginning to feel stronger than it did before."
Mitchell had surgery to re-attach the quadriceps muscle to his kneecap as anchors were used to bring the muscle back down to the patella. Sutures were also used to sew it back to the surrounding muscles where the tear occurred.
"They basically sew the muscles together and then it naturally heals and grabs onto the other muscle and keeps going from there," said Mitchell.
Now four months into rehab the linebacker is hoping to be back on the field in time for at least part of the spring workout schedule in May.
"Hopefully it's just a couple of months until I'm full go," Mitchell said. "I should be ready for some of the minicamps that we have going on. I don't know what speed they want me to work at, and how quickly they want me on the field this spring. All those things have to be worked out, but at least I'll be around and learning the system."
For a linebacker like Mitchell, whose playing and practice style are full speed, it was supremely difficult to accept a far slower approach with his rehabilitation.
"The first six weeks after surgery I couldn't even bend my leg at all," he said. "It was different from some other injuries. In order for the leg to properly function again you really have to let the muscle heal. It was real aggravating at first, so getting the range of motion back after that was a real pain in the butt, as well as getting rid of the scar tissue."
Mitchell's rehab has been nothing but positive as he has made positive strides each and every week with no setbacks. He's been simultaneously working with two different physical therapists to do everything he can to get his leg right again.
At this point, though he is only doing straight line work with his leg, he feels like he has a leg again and not just some peg-like appendage.
"I would say probably about a month ago or five weeks ago I was really starting to function," said Mitchell. "Prior to that, I couldn't even sit down properly because I couldn't bend my leg 90 degrees. I couldn't even take my wife out to dinner. Maybe six weeks ago I was really starting to function where I was walking and sitting normally."
The main hurdles Mitchell needs to clear between now and his targeted return of May are to continue to strengthen the repaired muscle, while also reducing the amount of scar tissue.
"We've done a good job of being patient with it. It's not something we could rush and since it is a muscle thing, the more that it has healed the better," he said. "Rebuilding my muscle back to full strength has come along pretty quickly. And the more we get rid of the scar tissue the more normal my muscle will be. Those are the major things that need to happen."
All told Mitchell's rehab figures to take almost as long as what's required for a torn ACL. Despite all the work his injury has demanded of him, the linebacker feels he had luck on his side that day against the Browns.
"It's a really crazy injury, but there have been positive gains every week of rehab since I started," he said. "I guess I'm fortunate to have a good knee as far as the ligaments and tendons are concerned."