Junior Galette felt invincible. Wouldn’t you? He’d had his share of knocks, many of them self-inflicted wounds, but he was an undrafted player who had grown into one of the best pass rushers in the NFL.
Nothing, it seemed, could stop his ascent. Conflict with his former Saints teammates and coaches, plus accusations of domestic abuse, led to his release from New Orleans in the summer of 2015 only after he’d been guaranteed $23 million in a contract restructured before those events. The Redskins signed him to a one-year deal and Galette could reasonably figure that, with a third-straight double-digit season in sacks, another big contract would follow.
When Galette tore his Achilles tendon during training camp in 2015, he still felt invincible. Could he even truly be hurt? He pushed it with his recovery timeline, working out three times a day against doctor’s orders.
“That’s what I just knew,” Galette said. “I was an undrafted free agent, so I always had to work to prove myself. I went to a small school, so that’s all I was —I was a product of my environment, and that’s all I was around, just hard-working and make sure you do your best, beat your opponent and outwork the next man, and unfortunately I was beating myself and I was outworking myself to the point where my body was breaking down.”
The Redskins gave him another one-year deal, and Galette had recovered from surgery in time for training camp in 2016. Then, the unthinkable happened. Another pop, this time in Galette’s other heel. He’d torn his second Achilles tendon and still hadn’t played a game.
“I learned that I’m human after all,” Galette said. “Playing five years in a row and never getting hurt, I learned that I was human. If I don’t take care of myself off the field, things on the field won’t go as I want them to.”
Galette changed his approach to rehab. After surgery, he called his doctors regularly to ask what, and how much, he could do physically. He was still upbeat, often making fun of himself on social media (in one tweet he lamented rapper Kendrick Lamar’s newest album by calling it “Weaker den my Achilles” and also posted a picture with two Crying Jordan memes covering his ankles) but he wondered if the Redskins, or any other team, would give him another shot.
Spending time with family and getting “really good at video games” helped, as did check-ins via text from then-outside linebackers coach Greg Manusky and coach Jay Gruden.
“We try to check on them,” Gruden said. “You try to keep them motivated so they don’t get down too much. You’re going to need them eventually and Junior will hopefully be a big player for us and getting himself ready to go. Hard work pays off, especially for these great players.”
The Redskins signed Galette to a third one-year deal this offseason and were surprised when he was ready to participate during organized team activities in May. Galette, whose tendons thickened post-surgery enough to bump him up an entire shoe size, says he’s about 80 percent right now.
Galette has also lost, by his estimation, 12-15 pounds off his old playing weight of 263, and plans to keep the weight off. His explosion, the covetable trait that led the Saints and Redskins to give him multiple chances, is even better now that he’s lighter, Galette believes.
“I just feel a lot lighter and I feel a lot more explosive,” Galette said. “People who don’t believe it, I’m going to show you.”
It’s possible some ribbing from Gruden could also have helped Galette slim down.
“I think after the second injury he gained a little weight, a little frustrated, a little down on himself, maybe, I don’t know. His face looked a little chunky when I first saw him, but he came in and lost the weight, no problem,” Gruden said, chuckling. “Junior is a hard worker.”
Assuming Galette makes it through training camp this year, what he’ll be able to offer the Redskins is difficult to predict. He has mostly worked with the second team defense in practices over the last month and even Galette has said that it’s impossible to figure out where he is in non-contact practices, and with players like tackle Trent Williams having just rejoined the team.
While paying him just $800,000, assuming he makes the roster, the Redskins would gladly take anything even close to what Galette was able to do his last two years in New Orleans. That, however, would not be enough for Galette.
“I don’t want to come back the way I was. I want to be better than I was. … I feel like I do have what it takes,” Galette said. “I don’t want to be 35 years old and looking back and saying hey, why did I retire? You know, at 28, 29 years old, why not give it a little more shot? I’m seeing guys 30, 31 years old getting paid 50-60 million dollars. I’m not going to turn that down.”
Galette has realized he’s only human but, at least once more, he thinks he can shake the odds.