When the Giants took the field on Sept. 16, 2021, for a Thursday Night Football contest in Landover, Maryland, Nick Gates never imagined what the ensuing 410 days would bring.
The team's starting center suffered a compound fracture of his left tibia that night and endured seven surgeries before he next saw game action.
"This last year has been a journey," he answered when asked to recap the experience in one word.
When Gates went down in the first quarter at Washington, he immediately knew that something serious had happened: His lower leg was bent at a 90-degree angle. As someone whose mindset was to weather the pain and exit the field under his own power, this particular injury was unlike anything he'd persevered.
The on-field medical staff applied an air cast and carted Gates to the locker room, where he was immediately transported to a local hospital. Twelve hours later, Gates underwent his first surgery to install four screws into his left tibia.
Dr. David Helfet of Orthopedic Trauma Service at Hospital for Special Surgery described the fracture as a "high energy" injury.
"It takes a lot of force to break a big guy like that's leg at that age," he added.
With the hardware in place, Gates next withstood a complication that threated his leg altogether.
He underwent a fasciotomy to remove compartment-syndrome swelling, and he remained in a Virginia hospital for two weeks with an open wound. Every few days, he reentered the operating rooms for doctors to clean the wound and ultimately conduct a skin graft.
Gates returned to New Jersey to begin his recovery, but his path back to the football field was far from linear.
"Everybody always counted me out from day one," Gates said. "Everyone said, 'I don't know if he's ever going to play again.' First of all, I didn't even know if I was going to keep my leg or not. So, just proving to everybody that I could do it again."
Despite the encouraging X-rays, Gates still experienced pain through February, nearly five months post-injury. Doctors discovered a tibia infection, and Gates went in for a final operation to replace the rod in his leg.
He pleaded with doctors to clear him for training camp that July, but his responsibilities as a lineman were particularly strenuous against the magnitude of his injury.
Dr. Helfet lauded Gates' determination: "To get back to the elite level really would take an aggressive athlete who wanted to do that."
Gates slowly ramped up his workload, and he was positioned to make his debut in Week 8 at Lumen Field.
"I get the chills just thinking about it," he admitted.
Just before halftime, Gates did the unthinkable. He returned as a jumbo tight end and blocked for a Saquon Barkley touchdown to tie the game. As a traditionally even-keeled guy, Gates celebrated in unusual fashion.
"I'm on the ground just kicking and punching air," he said. "There's a lot of emotions going through (my head). I looked like a little child throwing a tantrum on the ground. … [The biggest takeaway is] don't look too far down the road and don't look behind you. Just control what you can control and keep taking that next step forward, putting that foot in front of the other."
View photos of offensive lineman Nick Gates.