Zach Line had some down time on Saturday afternoon. He was at home, in the Eden Prairie duplex he moved into two months ago, relaxing with his dogs, Addaline and Olive. He and his fiancée, McKenzie, planned to drive into downtown Minneapolis to watch the city’s Holidazzle parade after she finished her work shift at the Mall of America.
Line glanced at the clock. Nearly 5 p.m. He knew what that meant. Elsewhere in the Twin Cities, Vikings players were starting to arrive at the team’s hotel. They’d soon begin meetings to go over the game plan for the Eagles. They’d also learn that the top two running backs, Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart, would be sidelined with injuries on Sunday.
Finally, a wide-open backfield. If only, right?
Line, the college tailback turned NFL fullback, has been stashed away on Minnesota’s injured reserve list since September. It was a move that initially upset him, but he concedes, “Right now, I couldn’t play. All I can worry about is getting healthy.”
Unbeknownst to Line when he left Southern Methodist University, there was a hidden injury that he overcame during his foray into the NFL as an undrafted rookie, which The MMQB began chronicling in July. Every step that Line took, from pulling a two-and-a-half ton Dodge Ram pick-up truck in summer workouts, to his 61-yard touchdown on his first NFL touch in a preseason game, to earning a spot on the 53-man roster, to replacing a Pro Bowl fullback for the first three games of the regular season, was achieved in spite of a 270-degree labrum tear in his left shoulder.
Since Nov. 1, when Line had arthroscopic surgery to repair the cartilage around the rim of the socket, his goals for his rookie season have drastically changed. The procedure has a five-month recovery timeline, and about six weeks out, it’s a significant achievement that Line can raise his arm 90 degrees toward the front and 45 degrees to the side. The worst part for Line is that he’s a stomach sleeper, and he still hasn’t figured out a comfortable position in which to get a good night’s rest.
Line’s weekly routine centers around rehab sessions at the Vikings’ practice facility—he’s there from 9:30 a.m. to noon, Monday through Saturday—rather than the normal cadence of an NFL season that his healthy teammates are following. On Sundays, Line is either in the players’ suite at the Metrodome or in front of his TV at home. He uses his team-issued tablet to review each week’s game plan, and he studies the end-zone view of each offensive series the day after a game. A spectator watching his own team, it’s been impossible for him to get over the strange disconnect he feels from the action on the field.
As the Vikings have stumbled to a 4-9-1 record, Line has longed to be competing alongside his teammates. The downtime has given him plenty of time to think about the odds he overcame to make an NFL roster—of the roughly 500 undrafted hopefuls last spring, he’s one of the few still around—and to think about what-if hypotheticals had his journey gone in different directions.
In September, he saw injuries ravage the backfield of the Steelers, one of five teams he turned down when he chose the Vikings during those few hectic minutes after the draft, and thought, Would I have had a better opportunity to play there? But Line let these thoughts die on the vine, just like he did his initial frustrations at being placed on injured reserve.
Line’s shoulder injury, as crazy as it sounds to those of us who have never played a down in the NFL, didn’t factor into his rookie season being cut short. He tweaked his knee against the Browns in Week 3—an MCL injury that didn’t require surgery—and moving Line to IR was a convenient way for the Vikings to clear a roster spot for Pro Bowl fullback Jerome Felton, who was coming back the next day from a three-game league suspension. Once Line was shut down for the season, his agent suggested it might be a good time to take care of the nagging shoulder that had bothered him since he was chasing Eric Dickerson’s SMU rushing records.
But Line had no idea the tear in his labrum was so severe. He first learned of the injury through the medical screening at February’s NFL Combine, when he was suddenly announced to team medical staffs as, “Zach Line, posterior labral tear.” But what was he supposed to do at that point? His only hope of making an NFL roster was to play through a pain that was sometimes overwhelming, a deep ache that seized his arm for at least 30 seconds if he was hit the wrong way. In his new position, the fullback was very often hit the wrong way.
Line had shoulder surgery in Minneapolis five weeks after he was moved to IR, and the orthopedic surgeon found the damage to be more extensive than the MRI had indicated. Line’s tear wasn’t just posterior; it wrapped around three-fourths of the shoulder socket. The surges of pain Line felt were the top of his arm bone sliding in and out of the socket.
Before the surgery, Line followed general manager Rick Spielman’s instructions to stay embedded with the team; he attended meetings and even traveled to the Week 4 game in London. But Line’s top priority quickly changed. Doctors told him it would take four weeks for the cartilage to fuse to the bone, so he kept his arm as still as possible in a sturdy black sling. He recently took a step forward when he began to exercise on a stationary recumbent bike; he expects to be 100% for organized team activities in the spring.
“It’s just nice to have stayed,” Line says. “Not being cut, not having to worry about finding a team. It’s nice that the Vikings believe in me, and that they will give me time to get healthy. It’s crazy, I have been through a little bit, but it’s all, I think, positive. I don’t think I’ve had to experience a lot of the negative things that are eventually going to happen to almost every player.”
When we introduced you to Line this summer, he was consumed by the singular mission of not giving the Vikings a reason to cut him. But his fate was still dictated by an unforgiving numbers game. Rehabbing a long-term injury, though painful and taxing, is less daunting because it is entirely within his control.
Line’s life actually looks like that of normal 23-year-old college graduate. He has a home, adjacent to a nature preserve where wild turkeys roam free, and he shovels the driveway each morning—but only with his good arm. McKenzie is studying to be a Pilates instructor, and she works part-time at the Lululemon store at the Mall of America. They’ll spend Christmas back in Line’s hometown of Oxford, Mich., with his family.
Line, of course, finds this normalcy weird, particularly after riding a fast track from undrafted rookie to starter in less than five months. He describes his NFL experience thusly: “Fast, fast, fast … and then stop.” But he also knows this pause won’t last long, and that he may end up better off for having had the break.
“If this is that one year in the NFL you spend getting healthy, a lot of guys don’t get that,” his agent, Mike McCartney, has told him. In repeating that advice, Line may not realize just how much his outlook has changed. Life in the NFL may always be day to day, but this undrafted rookie can now measure his career in years.