GREEN BAY, Wis. — David Bakhtiari compares it to driving a sports car. His finely tuned body is an unnatural blend of size, speed and flexibility, athleticism most people can only dream to possess. It’s top of the line, the total package for an All-Pro offensive lineman.
At least when he’s healthy.
Bakhtiari has not been healthy for almost 19 months. This bulky left knee that has stalled out at least three times since tearing his ACL on New Year’s Eve in 2020, requiring at least three surgeries now, won’t corporate. Bakhtiari knows what his body can do when everything is right, when it feels “normal,” but for a year and a half he’s been unable to heal.
“Imagine driving a sports car,” Bakhtiari said, “and keeping it in the first gear.”
There have been many iterations of the same injury since Bakhtiari twisted his knee in a noncontact rep three days before the Green Bay Packers traveled to Chicago for their regular-season finale in 2020. He didn’t just tear his ACL that day, but also his meniscus. There was cartilage damage. His knee was shredded, a broken engine preventing him from reaching top gear.
It felt that way last January when the Packers traveled to Detroit for a meaningless regular-season finale. The NFC’s top overall seed was secured win or lose two weeks before a home playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers. There was no need for Bakhtiari to play 27 snaps that day, but his quarterback wanted a test run with his franchise left tackle. It was never an ideal situation for Bakhtiari to make his reentry. The Lions play at Ford Field, an indoor stadium with synthetic turf instead of natural grass. The surface is known to be hard on leg joints.
Aaron Rodgers implored Bakhtiari in a text message that week to do whatever he could to be available. The Packers hoped Bakhtiari would feel good after Detroit, protecting Rodgers in the playoffs. Instead, those 27 snaps were all he played last season.
Bakhtiari said he needed another procedure on his knee this offseason. The surgery prevented him from participating in the team’s organized team activities and minicamp. He’s now on the physically unable to perform list for a second straight year, though he isn’t recovering from the same injury that held him out last year.
“We’re not really in an ACL issue,” Bakhtiari said. “That’s been, actually, a long time ago that we put that chapter to bed. It’s just there’s other issues I’m navigating around, things I’m learning, and it’s been my nightmare.”
Bakhtiari showed optimism Wednesday after the Packers opened training camp with their first practice, something that couldn’t have been easy given how arduous the past 19 months have been. “It’s my nightmare,” Bakhtiari said, “that I have to live with, and I don’t know how many days it’s been, but I’m just excited to wake up one day.” He feels that day is coming soon. In his darkest moments, Bakhtiari said he abandoned hope his knee would ever feel normal again. Maybe he had to settle for a “new normal” after reconstructive surgery.
Those fears have subsided. Despite being on PUP, Bakhtiari said his knee feels as strong as it did before the ACL tear. It’s the first time, he said, his knee has felt healthy since before the injury.
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“I would say I really enjoy how my knee functions, operates and moves,” Bakhtiari said. “It’s not like, I would say, how I was dealing with it last year. It’s hard to describe. I think only people who have gone through it maybe would have an idea, especially when it’s not cooperating with you. There was just stuff, it almost felt like blockage. It was really weird.”
The Packers will exercise caution before expecting their All-Pro left tackle to return as the player he was before his catastrophic injury. General manager Brian Gutekunst said he has zero concerns whether Bakhtiari will play again, despite the many delays. Still, Yosh Nijman took first-team reps at left tackle with Rodgers on the field Wednesday. In minicamp, Nijman moved to the right side whenever Rodgers was behind center.
Coach Matt LaFleur praised Bakhtiari for his work ethic through rehab, but he’s learned not to count on an injured player until the recovery is complete. “I don’t pay attention to timelines anymore,” LaFleur said. “When they’re cleared, they’re cleared.” If that sounds like coachspeak, LaFleur also emphasized how rare Bakhtiari’s complicated recovery has been.
“I’ve never been a part of something like this,” LaFleur said. “So, yeah, I think anytime it’s a first, you are a little bit surprised. At the same time, I’ve got a lot of trust and faith in not only our people here, but also in terms of Dave. Just the effort he puts in every day to be at his best, I mean, he is a pro’s pro.
“It’s unfortunate, but it is what it is. When he’s ready to go, we’ll be excited to have him back out there.”
Bakhtiari wouldn’t say whether he regretted playing in Detroit last season. Sitting out the playoffs was deeply disappointing, an absence the Packers felt. Rodgers was harassed relentlessly against the 49ers defensive line behind a makeshift offensive line that included Billy Turner making his first start at left tackle all season. Now healthier than he has been in a long time, Bakhtiari only wants to move forward.
It’s uncertain when Bakhtiari will play again. He had no timeline for his return, but made clear he expects to be back. If he isn’t cleared from PUP by the end of camp, Bakhtiari won’t be eligible to return until Week 5 at the earliest. Between now and then, he’s focused on strengthening the load his knee can carry, finding a way to get his body past first gear.
He knows returning as the two-time All-Pro he was before, a player Rodgers once described as a future Hall of Famer, will be the biggest challenge of his career.
“I remember when I was playing,” Bakhtiari said, “I remember thinking, ‘Man, this is getting pretty easy.’ And it was fun. I kind of would say, ‘Let’s make it a little bit challenging.’ Well, I got that answer. This is definitely the most challenging thing I’ve had to go through. Then I was recently talking to my wife, and I thought about how I started my career. Not only just here, but when I put on pads, nobody really thought I’d be where I was.
“It’s kind of cool to feel that again. You can either say or not say, but I know those questions are out there. I’m like, ‘This is cool.’ Because it’s like I get to relive that same story again. I made the choice back then, and I can make the choice again.”