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Colts’ Clayton Geathers returns to practice field following neck surgery

Clayton Geathers

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – There initially were concerns. Of course there were.

Clayton Geathers, whose game is rooted in physicality and delivering jarring hits, had given in to the “last resort’’ option in March. Surgery was required to repair a bulging disc in his neck.

The upcoming offseason would be about rehabilitation and discovering whether his promising career would actually continue. Again, we’re talking about an aggressive safety and neck surgery.

Fast-forward to Wednesday.

And notice the glimmer in Geathers’ eyes.

“I feel good,’’ he said.

Geathers was in the process of pulling on the pads and practicing with his teammates for the first time in nearly 11 months. It was clear the media was delaying a return to a practice he’d long anticipated.

“Just getting back on the field is going to be great,’’ he said, adding this next step in his rehab is “just getting my feet back under me, getting back into the groove of playing football.

“It’s been a while.’’

The 2015 fourth-round draft pick remains on the physically unable to perform list, but barring a setback, is in line to be added to the active roster within the next three weeks.

Geathers injured his neck Nov. 20 against Tennessee with a signature hit: stuffing DeMarco Murray for no gain on 4th-and-1 with less than 3 minutes to play to secure a 24-17 victory. He would be placed on the injured reserve list a month later when the effects of the injury lingered.

While the Colts have fallen into a 2-5 hole and the defense has bottomed out – 31st in total yards allowed, 32nd in points allowed – Geathers has worked with the trainers and rehab staff.

“He’s been running around,’’ Chuck Pagano said. “He’s been doing football movements, change of direction, back-pedaling, plant, drive, ball drills.’’

There also have been a few occasions where Geathers has put on pads and, in a controlled setting, worked at delivering blows to a blocking sled.

This week, Geathers is in the non-contact phase of his return. He’ll wear a red jersey and get some work in individual drills and 7-on-7 work. If there are no hiccups, his participation will be ramped up next week.

“I’m just going out there and doing everything I can, trying to add anything I can,’’ Geathers said. “My mindset hasn’t changed. I’m going to do anything I can to help this team.’’

Neither has his mindset changed on the type of player he’ll be when he returns. Before the injury, the 6-2, 220-pound Geathers was a back-end enforced who often was used close to the line of scrimmage in run support and coverage. In 24 games, 11 as a starter, he’s contributed 91 tackles, 77 of them solos.

“I’m going to play my game,’’ he said with a smile.

The bottom line: he’s getting closer to playing, period.

“I believe in a higher power. When people say things like, ‘You won’t (return),’ I believe in the man above,’’ Geathers said. “He’s with me, so I’ve got all the faith.’’

Even so, the long road back has tested his resolve.

“It’s been tough,’’ Geathers said. “Me dealing with what I’m dealing with, not trying to clutter my teammates with it and just watching from afar, putting in my two cents worth when I can. It’s been tough, but it’s been a journey I needed to go through.’’

That journey finally led him to the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center practice field. To this point, he’s “checked off all the boxes.

“I’ve done everything I can. I have no pain and feeling good.’’

The final step is returning to the playing field, and that’s a step Geathers is confident he’ll take in the next month.

“Absolutely,’’ he said. “That’s always the goal. That’s why I’m here, to play.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.