It might be that no recent Kansas City Chiefs player has entered training camp with more hype than wide receiver Justyn Ross. During practices at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, the undrafted free agent has shown flashes of excellence — and is making a strong case to make the opening day roster.
If he can do so, it will be an amazing comeback story about a player who was repeatedly told he could never play football again.
Ross had outstanding freshman and sophomore seasons at Clemson, collecting 112 receptions for 1,865 yards and 17 touchdowns. This led many observers to conclude he would eventually be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. But health concerns kept him from being chosen in 2022, opening the door for Kansas City to sign him as an undrafted free agent.
For NFL teams, the most pressing concern about Ross’ health was the cervical spine fusion surgery he underwent in 2020. After a routine hit in practice caused Ross to feel numbness in both arms, he was diagnosed with a congenital fusion of two vertebrae in his neck — a condition known as Klippel-Feil syndrome. This caused a bulging disc in his neck.
Originally told that this condition would prevent him from continuing his football career, Ross eventually underwent surgery by Dr. David Okonkwo — the same neurosurgeon who operated on Ryan Shazier. Although the former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker never played football again, Okonkwo’s surgery allowed him regain the ability to walk after he was paralyzed by an injury he sustained during a “Monday Night Football” game against the Cincinnati Bengals in 2017.
Okonkwo’s surgical procedure removed the bulging disc that was impinging on Ross’ spinal cord, replacing it with a bone graft. While spinal fusions are certainly commonplace in the general population, they are rare among active athletes — especially those in the NFL.
The most notable case is retired quarterback Peyton Manning, who underwent a cervical fusion before joining the Denver Broncos late in his career. But that surgical intervention — and the circumstances surrounding it — were quite different than Ross’ case, because Manning’s disc herniation was not a congenital condition. Manning did return from his injury, playing four seasons in Denver that ended with a victory in Super Bowl 50.
Luckily for Ross, his condition was discovered (and treated) before a serious injury — or worse — took place on a football field.
After over a year of rehab, he returned to the field for Clemson’s 2021 season. Ross appeared in only 10 games before he required surgery for a stress fracture in his foot.
With this history, it was reported that the medical staffs of only four NFL teams had cleared Ross to play. We presume that Kansas City was one of them — and that the Chiefs’ medical staff believed his cervical fusion surgery would allow him to play.
Still, there was enough uncertainty about his health that none of those four teams were willing to expend a draft pick to acquire him. It wasn’t even necessary for the Chiefs to offer him a signing bonus with his UDFA contract; it appears that other teams were not working hard to sign him.
Ross ultimately didn’t recover from his foot surgery as expected. A second surgery was performed after he arrived in Kansas City, which forced the team to put him put him on season-ending injured reserve as last season’s training camp began.
Outlook for 2023
Ross now heads into the 2023 season with sky-high expectations. Highlight-reel catches like this one have only increased them.
You’re welcome, Chiefs Kingdom. pic.twitter.com/G0KbxLKplm— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) August 4, 2023
Throughout training camp, Ross has also received praise from head coach Andy Reid and quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Former Clemson teammate Tee Higgins of the Bengals has also expressed confidence in him.
Man Ross been like that, injuries was nothing but a lil set back for a major comeback!! Watch out! https://t.co/Rt1agLGkAL— Tee Higgins⁵ (@teehiggins5) August 1, 2023
Thus far, Ross seems fully recovered from his foot surgery — and has had no problems facing NFL contact in training camp. But it’s reasonable to be concerned that one day, a hit in the wrong place could leave him with a serious impairment. While there is no reason to doubt the quality of the corrective surgery that Okonkwo performed on Ross in 2020, the fact remains that no one diagnosed with Klippel-Feil syndrome has ever played in the league. There is simply no precedent for what Ross is doing.
So just like with often-injured players, Ross’ best ability may be his availability. But he is getting plenty of practice reps — in part because the Chiefs’ presumed No. 1 wideout Kadarius Toney is missing time with an injury — and it now appears there is a path where Ross could make the team’s initial 53-man roster.
One thing is certain: when the Chiefs play their first preseason game against the New Orleans Saints this Sunday, all eyes will be on Ross.