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The inside story of Aaron Rodgers' remarkable journey toward return from Achilles injury

FLORHAM PARK — He was stoic, statuesque. Occasionally Aaron Rodgers would reach for his water, take a sip, play with the cap, then slide it back across the table. Those were the only times he leaned forward from his kicked-back stance, surrounded by media, inside a boardroom on the top floor of the Atlantic Health Training Facility.

Nothing in the quarterback’s tone or demeanor would tell you he was on the precipice of accomplishing something no other athlete had — returning to play from a ruptured Achilles inside four months. Maybe this was just a calming facade, but the more he spoke, his authenticity became more convincing. This wasn’t someone focused on what he might do. Rodgers is consumed by what he knows he will.

He knows he’s coming back — potentially before Christmas Eve.

"Anything is possible," Rodgers said.

He’s a self-centered egomaniac. A bad teammate. Obsessed with drama. In it for himself. That was the reputation Rodgers arrived to the Jets with. It’s hard not to laugh at that now. No one would have blamed the 39-year-old for calling it a season (or career) after his calf reverberated with the snapping of his ligament four plays into this season. He owed the league nothing. He owed the Jets nothing. He was indebted to no one.

Rodgers did not give a damn.

By the evening of Sept. 12 he looked at those closest to him and made them promise to remain by his side. He decided then that he was going to do everything in his power to get back to his team this year. It didn’t matter what it took, the strain it put on his aging body, the torture mentally. He needed them to help push him through. Why?

Because he felt he owed it to Jets fans, his teammates, coaches and ownership — a city and franchise that put their faith in him. There would be no focus on getting ready for 2024. He was going to push for this year. Rams running back Cam Akers returned in less than six months. Lakers star Kobe Bryant made a similarly fast return. Rodgers aimed to return for the final month of the regular season — a little over three months.

New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers throws the ball during warmups before a preseason NFL game at MetLife Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2023, in East Rutherford.

Doctors told him it wasn’t smart. Rodgers brushed it off. He told them that, every day, he was going to take it the brink of too far. He just needed them to prevent him from crossing the line, but not before he was right there. Then, the next day, they’d do an ultrasound to see how his Achilles responded. If there came a time where he was doing more harm than good — he’d pull back. But he was going to try.

And he did that, supplementing his rehab with a diet designed to help regenerate tissues. He consumed high levels of collagen, drank bone broth every day.

"At nine weeks we did an ultrasound and the doctor said he’d never seen an Achilles at nine weeks like that," Rodgers recalled.

Teammate Mekhi Becton called him an "alien." He might very well be. Wednesday the Jets activated the 21-day window for Rodgers to return off injured reserve. He was cleared for individual drills and routes on air. That’s exactly what he did. He took drop backs, threw to receivers, hopped around. He then watched the rest of practice.

The Jets gave Rodgers an off day to see how he’d respond on Thursday. He plans on ramping this up next week — Wednesday through Friday — to the next step in his recovery. He’ll assess where he is. Then, he’ll decide the next step. Rodgers did not rule out playing against the Texans (the Jets' opponent in two weeks) or the Dolphins (their opponent in three).

Rodgers admitted that he is not 100 percent. There’s no way for him to be this closely removed from surgery. He won’t be, likely, until the offseason. It’s not about being 100 percent, though. It’s about him being healthy enough to play, and confident enough he can protect himself. That means having a bit more mobility than when he injured his calf earlier in his career with the Packers. That means feeling confident in playing under center. Once he can do that — he’ll be back out there.

Assuming the Jets still have a chance at the postseason.

The Jets' decision to not have a competent backup option behind Rodgers going into 2023, nor acquire one after he went down, caught up to them. They’re currently 4-7, losers of four straight, in 15th place in the AFC (the top seven get to the postseason) and have a 2.97 percent chance of making the playoffs, per ProFootballFocus. Tim Boyle, whom the Jets turned to in place of Zach Wilson, will make his second start of the year on Sunday against the Falcons.

Oct 29, 2023; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers (8) on the field before the game against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium.

Rodgers said it "would not make sense" to play again this year if the Jets are eliminated, but as long as they still have a chance, he wants to be there with his teammates.

There’s league-wide public hysteria tied to each step of Rodgers' recovery, every obstacle he overcomes at an uncanny rate. The Jets are ripped for letting him do this. Rodgers is ripped for trying this. As is the case with anything the quarterback does — he’s criticized.

Rodgers was cavalier when the worst-case scenarios were laid out in front of him. He’s not ignorant. To think he hasn’t assessed them is. Doctors told him he’s at an increased risk of injury. Because he won’t be 100 percent, he won’t be able to maneuver around the pocket like he used to. There’s also the current state of the Jets' offensive line (ravaged by injuries) to take into account.

But is the worst case really the worst case?

The risk to Rodgers returning is tearing his Achilles again. If that were to happen, he said, he would go back under the knife, and instead of trying to clear all obstacles at a historic rate, he’d do them at a more conservative level. He’d have eight months before training camp — more than enough time to rehab the traditional way. And, no, another Achilles injury would not deter his intentions of playing in 2024 (and beyond).

This was the second time Rodgers met the media in this boardroom. The last time he spoke about how his time with the Jets, to that point, had felt like a "beautiful dream" — one he didn’t want to wake up from.

Less than two weeks later it became a nightmare. He tried to plant to avoid the pass rush. He tore his Achilles. He got to his feet, looked to the sideline, shook his head in disbelief, then dropped back down.

There were tears, pain that followed. Good days, probably a few more bad. They’ve all been for this, though — a competition against himself, to be able to compete again with the team he’s come to love.

From a dream, to a nightmare, and now this potentially fairytale ending.