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Cleveland Browns' Myles Garrett reflects on difficult COVID-19 battle, brief pickup basketball career

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BEREA, Ohio – Myles Garrett believes his asthma contributed to COVID-19 hitting him last season about as hard as he hits quarterbacks.

The All-Pro defensive end discussed his asthma with Cleveland Browns beat writers for the first time Wednesday, adding his bout with COVID-19 "sure did" affect his candidacy for NFL defensive player of the year in 2020, an award that ultimately went to Rams star Aaron Donald for the third time.

"It hurt, too," Garrett said of missing out on the honor he has been chasing since the Browns drafted him first overall in 2017 out of Texas A&M.

The good news for the Browns is Garrett said he feels "great" now. He headlined the list of 55 players who attended the club's second organized team activity practice of the offseason.

"I'm glad I've recovered," Garrett said via Zoom. "I hope nothing like that happens to me or anyone else.

"I feel the best that I have since last year before COVID. It’s a wonderful feeling. I feel like it was kind of a long road, and now that I’m back, I’m feeling well-conditioned and feeling back at my peak."

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Garrett missed two games in late November after contracting the virus. He wasn't the same after returning for the final seven games of the season, including two in the playoffs.

"I didn't feel like I was getting off the ball," Garrett said. "Athletically, I felt like I had it. Conditioning-wise, I felt like I was like 50%. I don't think I've ever had to use oxygen so frequently so early into a game. I think (it was my first game back Dec. 6 against) Tennessee, and I don't think I had like a huge amount of snaps, but I was like hanging on.

Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett, facing, stares down offensive tackle Greg Senat during an NFL Football OTA, Wednesday, June 2, 2021, in Berea, Ohio.
Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett, facing, stares down offensive tackle Greg Senat during an NFL Football OTA, Wednesday, June 2, 2021, in Berea, Ohio.

"Once you get tired, you start losing the play, so you're trying to think of what you're supposed to do here. If you're thinking what you're supposed to do here, you can't think about the alternatives or the options off that, the pass-rush moves or the rip or release for run blocks. Once you're thinking about just trying to remember the play, you're not thinking about running calls. Things start to slip. You're not thinking about alternatives you can do with your hands, so you start to just rely on one move.

"All this stuff starts to weigh on you. So I'm just trying to get my conditioning back, and I'm fighting through that when I get into games and to practices. I think I had it like a quarter, maybe a quarter and a half, and then I was honestly emptying the tank. I don't think I've ever felt like that. To not feel like that, it's great."

Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett, center, works against Jordan Franks (87) and Greg Senat (70) during an NFL football practice at the team's training facility Wednesday, June 2, 2021, in Berea, Ohio. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett, center, works against Jordan Franks (87) and Greg Senat (70) during an NFL football practice at the team's training facility Wednesday, June 2, 2021, in Berea, Ohio. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

Given Garrett's struggle with COVID-19, he understands why defensive tackle Andrew Billings opted out of the 2020 season. Billings, who practiced Wednesday, has severe asthma and told the Beacon Journal in February he wouldn't return to football until he was vaccinated. Garrett is also fully vaccinated.

"I don’t blame him for doing it. I have asthma as well, and that’s probably why (COVID-19) hit me so hard," Garrett said. "So just going into it, I feel like we have the vaccine, we have another year of protocols to keep our players, our staff safe. Now I feel like it’s just up to us to get the job and the work done.

"A guy like AB, I don’t think he has any worries of how he can be taken care of. And I think he has many different avenues he can take to remain healthy and keep his family safe, and I’m just glad we can all get together for this time and work on getting to know each other."

Garrett and cornerback Denzel Ward are the only locks to return as starters on a defense revamped this offseason by GM Andrew Berry. And Garrett is widely considered the best player on an ultra-talented team with serious Super Bowl aspirations.

Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett (95) warms up during an NFL football practice at the team's training facility Wednesday, June 2, 2021, in Berea, Ohio. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett (95) warms up during an NFL football practice at the team's training facility Wednesday, June 2, 2021, in Berea, Ohio. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

Garrett had been in the thick of the defensive player of the year race when COVID-19 interfered. He led the NFL with 9½ sacks and was tied for first in the league with four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries when he landed on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Nov. 20, two days before the Browns' 10th game.

In Garrett's final five regular-season games, he registered 2½ sacks. He added one in two playoff appearances.

Donald had 13½ sacks but held off Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt, who finished with 15 sacks, for the hardware.

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Garrett has continued to wow fans with workout videos on social media, though Browns coach Kevin Stefanski says the pass rusher's budding intramural basketball career is now over.

“He retired,” Stefanski said after Wednesday’s OTA workout. “So congratulations on a great career for Myles. I’m really proud of him, but he’s done.”

Garrett recently flashed his basketball skills in what appeared to be a pickup game in a viral video. At one point he posterized an opposing player with a dunk who tried to challenge him at the rim.

Garrett said when he looked at the guy on the floor afterward, he could only wonder what was going through his head.

"I knew you didn't think you were going to go up there and get that," Garrett said. "He must've wanted to be in the highlight or he saw the video and wanted to be a part of it somehow, but he made the video."

Stefanski would not say whether he spoke with Garrett about hanging up the sneakers.

“I feel it’s more like a (Michael) Jordan retirement,” Garrett said. “I went to baseball/basketball for a second and now I have to go back to what I’m good at, which I usually do, which is playing football, rushing the passer, stopping the run.

"Next season you never know. I may go back to basketball. I may go play baseball, see if I can get on a team. There’s more on the horizon [but] right now I have to go back to what my main focus is.”

At least Garrett got to go out on his own terms with a dunk.

"Freak of nature, honestly," said linebacker Anthony Walker Jr., who signed with the Browns in March after spending the last four seasons with the Indianapolis Colts. "Huge person. Huge human being.

"Probably the most flexible big guy I've ever seen as far as the stuff that I've seen him do in the weight room. Strong. All of that stuff. He is as advertised is what he is. Just watching him on TV and now being able to be his teammate, I'm much happier to be his teammate than him sacking my quarterback in the end zone last year."

Told about Walker's comments, Garrett indicated he's gotten a little bit bigger this offseason.

"I've been working hard," Garrett said. "I feel like I have been trying to elevate myself every year. With how I have been working, progression one or two times a day for four or five days, I think it's going to pay off big time. But I don't think I've lost any speed, so I don't want them to get any ideas that I'm a little bit slower because that's not the case."

More importantly, Garrett is confident he has regained the stamina that COVID-19 robbed.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Cleveland Browns' Myles Garrett talks COVID-19 battle, pickup hoops