There’s a long list of negatives from the week of Super Bowl LV for the Kansas City Chiefs, but one storyline that got buried was rookie linebacker Willie Gay Jr.’s knee injury during practice week. It required surgery, and there hadn’t been an official update all offseason on Gay’s recovery.
That was true until Thursday when Gay spoke to media members following the team’s ninth organized team activity (OTA) practice. He was able to calm the worries of Chiefs fans but didn’t exactly set the record straight on how his injury occurred.
“I don’t even know what really happened with it,” Gay admitted. “I tore my meniscus; I don’t know if it was at practice or if it happened walking around after. All I know is that during this offseason period with the training staff, we’ve been working nonstop. Me, [assistant athletic trainer Julie Frymyer] and all her help, it’s been a real grind. It’s why I’m here today, 100%.”
100% is a strong description to use, and it is hard to imagine a player would throw it out at this point of the offseason unless he truly believed it.
It was good to hear that Gay is feeling better physically, but it’s not just the knee that’s feeling better. He happened to enter the NFL during one of its most unique seasons due to COVID-19, and there was a clear disadvantage for rookies given last year’s virtual offseason.
This year, he’s noticing the benefits of normal, in-person practices and meetings.
“Of course it was tough for us that came in last year,” he confirmed. “To only see the playbook for the first time during training camp, it was hard. To get this head start right now in OTAs and minicamp, it’s definitely helping a lot. I’m catching onto things that I didn’t catch onto last year. I learned the basics, now it’s the small details that make good great. It’s coming on pretty good.”
Gay isn’t the only young and talented linebacker on the Chiefs. A year after selecting Gay in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft, the team used its second second-rounder to take another SEC linebacker: Missouri’s Nick Bolton.
They may be competing with each other for snaps in 2021, but their position gives them the chance to play alongside each other in the long term. They’ll need to build a good relationship to make it work at its best, and they’re off to a good start in that respect.
“We talk everyday,” Gay said about his and Bolton’s relationship. “I’m not a rookie, but it’s my second year and it’s his first year; we’re both still fresh in this thing. I tell him I’ll teach him the game as much as I can, cause I’m still learning from guys like Hitch, Ben, Dorian, and all those older guys. Whatever I learn, I pass it down to him; whatever I’ve been through, I pass it down to him, and we continue to stay close... it’s a good connection we have.”
The hope is that Gay and Bolton can translate their new friendship into an effective, on-field linebacker duo. It’s been the weakest position on the defense in recent seasons, and the Chiefs’ draft strategy reflects their acknowledgment.
The defense needs his athleticism for more than the 25% of snaps he played last season. Ideally, he’s on the field more in 2021 — and this update on how he feels physically and mentally is a great start for that.