GREEN BAY – The Green Bay Packers are all too familiar with serious neck injuries. Third-year safety Sean Richardson is the exception to what has been a sad rule.
Tight end Jermichael Finley, defensive end Johnny Jolly and running back Johnathan Franklin all suffered neck injuries in 2013. None of them are currently on an NFL roster, as Finley and Jolly remain unsigned and Franklin announced his retirement in June.
The first padded practice of camp Monday – with Franklin, coincidently, standing on the sideline as a spectator -- featured the first hard-hitting contact the players experienced in months. And despite his previous injury, Richardson certainly wasn’t afraid to be physical when he made the play of the day by driving himself hard through wide receiver Jordy Nelson on his way to an interception that brought instant energy to practice.
“He made a great break and took it right out of my hands,” Nelson said.
“Sean is a physical guy,” corner Tramon Williams said. “He carries the size of a really physical safety… If you can get a guy like that to make his presence felt on the field, it’s a good thing for the defense. You saw him make the interception. That was due to physicality.”
In 2011, Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins was taken off the field on a stretcher after suffering a herniated disk between the C3 and C4 vertebrae in his neck at Carolina and never played again. Richardson, who made the Packers’ roster as an undrafted free agent out of Vanderbilt two years ago, suffered a herniated disk between the C5 and C6 vertebrae in a Nov. 25, 2012 game against the New York Giants but didn’t know the severity of the injury at the time.
He underwent single fusion cervical spine surgery in January 2013 – his doctor, Dr. Robert Watkins, was NFL MVP Peyton Manning’s surgeon – and after starting last year on the physically unable to perform list, he returned to practice on Nov. 13 and was added to active roster, Nov. 23, two days short of the one-year anniversary of his injury. He saw action in six games, posting 12 tackles (10 solo) on defense and four tackles on special teams.
“It’s one of those deals where the doctor has to take a look at it and make a judgment,” Richardson said. “This opportunity is so short to play football. You have many years after this so you have to think longevity. You definitely want to be able to pick up your kids and be fully functional years after football.”
Now, Richardson is ready to prove himself on the field, even though he’s fighting for the fourth safety spot depth chart behind Morgan Burnett, Micah Hyde and first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
”He’s a real good player,” Hyde said. “He’s smart…big guy. He can definitely come up and fill in the run game. He even made a play in the passing game [with the interception]. He’s a very fun player to play with.”
One of the happiest people to see Richardson make a big play was cornerback Casey Hayward, Richardson’s close friend and college teammate at Vanderbilt.
“Sean is like a brother to me,” Heyward said. “Every time they ask me about Sean, I have nothing but great things to say. He’s one of the first people I met at Vanderbilt. Even since then, we’ve been tight like brothers. He’s one of the few guys from Vanderbilt that I still keep in contact with. … I wish him nothing but the best of luck because I know his journey coming back and everything that he’s been through.”
Stephen Dixon is a summer intern for ESPN Milwaukee and will start his senior year at Furman University in the fall. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/StephenDixon864.