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Carolina Panthers

Six months in: Austin Corbett's making big strides

Austin Corbett

Panthers right guard Austin Corbett suffered a torn left ACL on Jan. 8 in the regular season finale against the Saints. He has agreed to take us inside the rehab process, explaining his perspective on what coming back from the injury entails from a physical and an emotional standpoint and what the months of work to return actually look like as they're happening. This is his story, as it unfolds.

CHARLOTTE — A month ago, Austin Corbett admitted he was bored.

Lately, there were two pretty significant additions to his life, even if they don't sound all that dramatic.

He ran. And he slept.

Like really ran, without the benefit of a weight-suspending treadmill or electronic monitors or anything. On his own two feet. And then, after crossing that threshold, he did something he hasn't had much of a chance to do for the last two years — he vacationed with the family, a solid week to stop, to rest, to recharge.

When you consider a 21-game Super Bowl run with the Rams in 2021, a quick dip into free agency to move across the country to a new city, only to live in a hotel for four months until his house was ready, then go straight into another 17-game season and then straight into rehab from a torn ACL, there's been a lot happening in his life.

So getting to a friend's place in Myrtle Beach with his family last week, yeah, that was a break Corbett needed.

"I think my body knew, just subconsciously knew, like, yeah, you do not have to be awake right now," Corbett said of the trip. "I mean, sure, the kids were waking me up; they were in a new place, so the first couple of nights, they always struggle with sleeping, right?

"But like, my body knew, it's OK. Just turn off. Yeah, that was the fastest I've fallen asleep and the best sleep I've gotten in a long time. Like, I subconsciously knew."

The rest isn't something anyone in his family has been able to take for granted.

With his 2-year-old son Ford scrambling around and a new daughter Landry arriving last fall, Corbett was looking forward to helping his wife Madison around the house with the kids this offseason since she had been on that duty the entire fall. But suffering a season-ending injury in the season-ending game complicated all their plans.

So a quick dash to Myrtle Beach, without crutches or rehab equipment or the daily trips to the athletic training room at Bank of America Stadium, that was something the whole family has been looking forward to.

Corbett family

"It was so needed," Madison Corbett said recently. "He's been grinding, day in and day out, all offseason, so he needed that mental checkout to do nothing with work. He hasn't checked out since the Super Bowl, really, so he needed that mental and physical reset. He just needed a good week of nothing."

Of course, it wasn't really nothing, not with everything they have going on outside of football.

Ford can be a full-time job some days, so there's no just sitting on the beach. Holes must be dug. Then back to the pool, where all the lessons paid off and he took the huge step of swimming without a life jacket for the first time. When you're parenting a hair-on-fire 2-year-old, you don't ever really stop, even at the beach, because something's always about to happen.

"We went to one of the mini-golf places; it's actually where they hold the Masters of mini-golf," Austin said. "And for once, we weren't video-ing. We didn't expect it, but Ford's first hole, it goes trickling down the triple hill, off the back, and hole-in-one. I mean, his face, it just lit up, and I was like, 'Oh my gosh, how do we miss that?'"

Of course, he didn't miss it, even though it wasn't captured on camera. You can tell that by the look on Corbett's own face when he tells the story.

Because for that week, Austin Corbett was fully present with the family, not pulled by the constant demands of rehab, not thinking about the percentages he had to hit on specific lifts in the weight room, just there with his people.

"It was awesome," Corbett said with a grin. "Hotter than heck, but yeah, it was awesome."

Austin Corbett

Of course, Corbett's a football player, and this is a football story, so at a certain point, we all have to go back to work.

And what he's doing now is definitely work, even if you watch it and don't come away particularly awestruck.

The surgeon who rebuilt his torn ACL cleared him to run when he was five months out from surgery. But as with everything in Corbett's rehab, the work is gradual and intentional.

This week, he had built up two sets of 10 20-yard "sprints," though he estimated he's going about 30 percent of what he's capable of when fully healthy.

"We're not out here setting land-speed records," he joked.

But when you've been unable to do it without mechanical assistance, or at all for months, it represents a big moment in his recovery. Through the offseason program and OTAs and minicamps, he could be among his teammates in the weight rooms and meeting rooms, but when they took the field, he became a coach, watching while they practiced.

Now, he's back among the living, getting his runs in alongside some teammates in the Atrium Health Dome and getting one step closer each day to being able to do more.

Those first steps weren't much to look at, but they were still big ones.

Corbett also had a training partner that first day in late June, as he brought Ford along to work. And as is his custom, as soon as Ford passed through the revolving doors of the bubble, he promptly dashed out onto the turf and kicked all the cones over, announcing his presence with authority the way only a headstrong 2-year-old can.

"As expected," his dad said with a laugh.

But for Corbett, those first few sprints were serious business because he's been out of the unassisted running business since January.

"Any time you're dealing with lower extremities, doing any sort of like running for the first time again, there is that natural guarding, just trying to protect yourself," Corbett said. "The body's trying to protect it. So I just remember, like, it's going to look bad, but just go for it and don't worry about it.

"You've done so much to this point of strengthening and stability, and they wouldn't let me be running if I wasn't able in some capacity. So I was just like, go for it, and we'll just figure it out."

The next day, there was the expected tightness, but nothing extreme. His general plan through the rehab process has been for Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays to be the heavier days, with recovery between. So there's a normal pattern of exertion and rest and building himself back up to where he needs to be.

He felt a similar sensation when he got back in the weight room after the structure of his knee had healed, and started doing single leg work, then some squats, a little bit more at every interval. As much as he had to train his muscles again, he had to adjust his mindset to knowing this was a step-at-a-time process.

"When you're hitting these new milestones, it's kind of like, all right, what's tomorrow going to bring?" he said. "It hasn't been a knee that's sore. It's just been the functional muscle groups around it that haven't been working for so long, so it's been a good sore, not acute pain in the knee. . . .

"I mean, so much of this is just that everything we're trained to do as professional athletes is just try harder, work harder, and you'll do better and more. And you just can't, and it takes time, and so for the groundhog days that it's been, to finally get something new that's not just like doing more weight. So when you can actually go run and start adding more that way, it was great. It really came at a perfect time."

As the weeks go on, Corbett will build up a bit at a time. The 20-yard runs will get a little faster. At a certain point, they'll become 30-yarders, maybe 40. He's still an offensive lineman, so the need to run great distances isn't as urgent, and it's not like he was out running 5Ks previously, so the endurance work looks a little different as well.

For now, he's building himself up with long walks. Thankfully, he has a partner in that as well, as their dog is up to the task.

His sister-in-law, who is training for a marathon, took Maisey out for a run recently. And when the dog handled that well and was willing to accept a slower pace with her regular human, Corbett knew he'd have company.

"When I do endurance, it's time on feet, just like going for walks," he said. "And if you've never worn a heart-rate monitor, you walk those first couple miles, your heart rate gets to 90 or so, very basic. But as you start getting to those further 3, 4, 5, 6 miles, your heart rate is going to climb. And so yesterday, a five-and-a-half mile walk, a pretty hilly neighborhood, and those stretches where I'm going up hills, my heart rate's up around 165 when you get after that fifth mile. So that prolonged time on feet is where you get a lot of your endurance."

And if he's learned anything through this process, it's endurance, both physical and mental, as well as emotional.

And in those early days of this offseason, Corbett was also pushing through the mental hurdles of not being able to help around the house when his wife had to look after two little ones and a big one who couldn't easily get to the table to eat.

"Those first few weeks, there were so many I'm sorrys," Madison Corbett said. "There's nothing he loves more than being a dad, so when he couldn't do what he was hoping to do, it was hard for him. He'd still hobble up the stairs to the game room with Ford, do what he could. Now, he's able to do more around the house, so he's letting me sleep in, giving me those little breaks that he couldn't before. Now, we're working on projects, getting things together before training camp, and trying to get it all in."

His wife marvels at her husband's ability to stay focused on the daily work of coming back. It would be easy to get lost in the enormity of what he's trying to do, to get swallowed up by the fact this is going to take nine months or more.

"He's just such a day-by-day guy, he knows this is a marathon and not a sprint, and every day brings a little improvement," she said. "I wouldn't necessarily call it stubborn, but he's very driven. It's a very 'tell-me-I-can't-and-I-will' mindset he has."

So, for now, that means more short runs at work and some long walks with the dog when he gets home.

Madison Corbett refers to it as "a journey," and they both know there are still miles to go before they reach the destination of Austin running through a tunnel and playing again. But they're all getting closer to that point now, and they're all grateful.

"It's so good to get back to that point, where Saturdays can be taking long walks with the family instead of being in a hot tub," Madison said. "I mean, the two of us, with the kids, with the dog, we go on a long walk, we get some ice cream, ... this is what the whole offseason was supposed to be like."

View the best photos of Austin Corbett who started every game at guard in his first year as a Panther in 2022.

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