Bengals' Tyler Eifert: From retirement talk to appreciating NFL 'grind'

CINCINNATI -- Pain wasn’t the only emotion Tyler Eifert felt after he snapped his ankle and was carted off the field in Atlanta on Sept. 30, 2018.

In the moments following an injury that requires warning disclaimers to watch, the Cincinnati Bengals tight end thought his career might be over. While his right foot was in an air cast, it all ran through his mind: Will he ever walk the same way again? Will a team be willing to sign him to another contract? Could he even play football again?

"It’s your livelihood," Eifert said. "It’s your career. When something that traumatic happens, those are the kind of things you think about along with, my teammates trusted me and the organization trusted me to help. And then kind of let them down again, even though there’s not much I could have done."

But as he started the rehabilitation process for yet another time in his career, he was determined to show he could still be a valuable asset. Hanging up the cleats would have to wait.

After missing 53 games over the past five years because of injuries, Eifert, 29, is enjoying one of the healthiest stretches of his career. He has appeared in all eight games with the Bengals and has had at least one reception in all of them, a feat he hasn’t accomplished since his rookie year in 2013.

And most important, Eifert feels good in his seventh NFL season.

"For me, it feels good to be healthy and to be able to keep contributing to the team," he said. "Obviously we’re not where we want to be, but just to be able to get into the flow of the season and into that grind, it’s been fun."

Getting to this point wasn’t easy, especially after the latest injury that is usually prefaced with words such as "gruesome" or "horrific." On the second play of the third quarter in Week 4 last season, Eifert was being tackled after a 2-yard gain when his ankle was caught beneath the 232-pound frame of Falcons linebacker De’Vondre Campbell.

It was another setback in a career filled with an injury history that reads like a game of Operation: elbow, shoulder, concussion, back and the broken ankle he suffered last year.

At the time, Eifert was in a contract year for the second consecutive season. After the Bengals exercised the option on his rookie contract, he was on a one-year deal in 2018. Eifert and the Bengals agreed to another one-year contract before the 2019 season.

But as Eifert started the rehab process, he gained confidence in his ability to be the player he once was. In January, he went to Florida to work with longtime trainer Donnie Icsman to build strength and movement with the ankle. In the spring, he arrived at the facility early to make sure he wasn’t taking any steps backward.

When Bengals strength and conditioning coach Joey Boese arrived in Cincinnati as part of the staff hired by new coach Zac Taylor, Eifert sat in Boese’s office for 30 to 45 minutes. Boese gauged where the 2015 Pro Bowler was mentally and physically.

They entered the season with a plan to keep him as fresh and healthy as possible. After the Week 1 game against Seattle, Eifert has taken a rest day if the team has a full practice at the beginning of the week.

He goes through an extensive "prehab" regimen. He uses the foam rollers, does ankle mobility exercises that focus on moving the joints and then a quick routine to make sure his glutes and hips are ready before he steps on the field. That’s just to get ready to practice.

Over time, Boese said Eifert’s 6-foot-6, 255-pound body started to feel better and the confidence increased. He has been more than pleased with the way Eifert has attacked and embraced the daily preparation to stay on the field.

"You never question his desire or his want to get back to that Pro Bowl level that he’s played at before," Boese said. "You see that in his demeanor, his attitude. You see that in the way that he comes in and prepares for practice."

All that work has paid off for Eifert. As the 0-8 Bengals come off their bye week, he has 23 catches for 192 yards and a touchdown. In the Week 8 loss to the Rams in London, he set season highs in catches (six), targets (nine) and receiving yards (74).

The early success -- and his health -- are important data points when considering Eifert’s future. Five days after fellow Bengals tight end C.J. Uzomah was given a three-year contract, Eifert received only a one-year deal worth $4 million in March. The Bengals also used a second-round pick to draft former Washington tight end Drew Sample.

Uzomah said it’s been admirable to see how one of his close friends on the team prepares every week to get his body in playing shape. Eifert wants people to know he’s competitive and a fighter.

"He’s a Pro Bowler for a reason," Uzomah said. "He’s a damn good tight end and he wants to show people that."

Eifert can’t do a lot of the things he could when he was younger. A former guard at Bishop Dwenger High in Indiana, Eifert hasn’t played a game of full-court basketball in years. Because of his injury history, he no longer places a barbell on his back during workouts. And Eifert jokes that when he’s hurting after his career, doctors will have something figured out to fix whatever is ailing him.

Eifert, who will again be a free agent after this season, doesn’t want to talk about what might happen if he suffers another severe injury. But his actions to get ready for each day this season are those of someone who wants to maximize however many games he has left in his body.

"As long as I’m feeling good, I’m going," Eifert said. "Or good enough. As long as I’m feeling good enough."