THE COLONY — At some point you don’t notice a finger or toe remains numb. What felt strange for so long slowly becomes part of your new normal.
Then, toward the end of the season, a breakthrough. You stub your toe.
“It hurt,” Travis Frederick remembered. “It hurt a lot. So at that point it was a good thing because there were times I’d kick the wall and I got nothing out of it.”
Frederick reflected on his battle with Guillain-Barre syndrome while raising money for Blocking Out Hunger, a foundation he established to help feed children from low-income situations. Frederick won’t take part in team drills during organized team activities or next month’s mini-camp, but that has more to do with offseason shoulder surgery than his return from the autoimmune disease.
The Cowboys center assumes he’ll be cleared for the start of training camp in July.
“I feel good at where I am right now,” he said Tuesday night. “As far as strength goes, I feel like I’m back, close to if not full strength.”
It’s been nine months since doctors discovered Frederick suffered from a disease that weakens the muscles and attacks the peripheral nervous system. A player who didn’t miss a game his first five years in the NFL was forced to sit out the 2018 season.
The stubbed toe was a telling moment in Frederick’s journey back. So was the decision shortly after that to have surgery on his shoulder.
The initial injury occurred during his first two seasons in the league.
Frederick doesn’t remember for sure. He didn’t pursue surgery earlier for the 180-degree labrum tear because the muscles stabilized the area and there was no damage to the rotator cuff. Besides, he didn’t relish the four- to six-month recovery period.
Still, Frederick wanted to get on top of it before it became an issue. He considered having surgery when he went on the injured list last season but was advised against it.
“There are a few risks involved there, going under anesthesia,” Frederick said. “They have to put you on a paralytic when you’re doing the shoulder surgery.
“When your muscles are already paralyzed and then you add the paralytic to it, sometimes it can be difficult coming out of that.”
So Frederick waited. When doctors cleared him for surgery on Jan. 9, three days before the team’s playoff loss to the LA Rams, it meant he was far enough along in his recovery from Guillain-Barre that it was no longer a concern.
“To me, it was a really good sign,” he said. “I was in good enough shape to do that, and also from the recovery standpoint, I was able to do all of the rehab, had enough muscle there.”
Frederick is lifting slightly less in the weight room than he normally would at this time of year, but that corresponds with where he is in his rehab from shoulder surgery, not any limits from Guillain-Barre.
The shoulder is also the reason he’ll be restricted to individual drills over the next four weeks and won’t punch the heavy bag or ram into the blocking sleds.
Does he experience any lingering effects from the autoimmune disorder?
“The explosive movement, that’s just trailing a little bit,” Frederick said. “I think that’s a little remnant from the Guillain-Barre.
“I don’t want to go into a physiology lesson, but that’s the last thing that comes. When those nerves come back, there are little stops in them and it becomes less and less of those as you heal more. Those are the things that slow the nerves down.
“They’re conducting fully now, they’re just not conducting quite as quickly as you’d want them to, and that’s the explosion.”
Weekly visits with his neurologist are no longer needed. His next session is several weeks down the road and is more about checking for any potential long-term damage than assessing where he stands at the moment.
Returning to the field isn’t the goal for Frederick. The goal is to perform at the level that earned him four consecutive Pro Bowl appearances before this unexpected episode in his career.
“Yeah, I don’t think there’s any reason to come back if you can’t do it at that level,” Frederick said. “To me, it’s important to do everything that I can to help our team. It excites me and invigorates me every day to come into work and see the guys that we have on our team.”
Club officials anticipate Frederick will be at least partially cleared for the start of training camp. That’s the next test.
“That’s going to be an important step to my return, being able to go through [practice in pads] and there’s going to be rust. You’re going to have to knock the rust off during training camp.
“You can do the movements on air as much as you want, but it’s not until you’re going against a live person that you feel football.”
It will be the best feeling Frederick has had since he stubbed his toe near the end of last season.
Cowboys center Travis Frederick lost the 2018 season before it even started. He almost had much, much more taken away from him.
An August 2018 diagnosis of Guillain-Barre Syndrome sidelined Frederick for months; the autoimmune disease causing numbness and a loss of strength that left Frederick “less than a week out from not being able to walk anymore,” he said in February as he embarked on a hopeful return to the field. Now participating in the team’s off-season program, the four-time Pro Bowler has his sights set on a full recuperation in 2019 and return to form as one of the best centers in the game.
“I feel good about where I am at,” Frederick told reporters over the weekend, according to Clarence Hill, Jr. of the Star-Telegram. “It’s hard to judge percentage where you are at because the only thing we have to judge off of is strength numbers. We haven’t been able to get to the strength numbers because I am not benching. I don’t have a bench standard and I am not squatting. I am rebounding from hernia surgery as well, so I am still easing back in after that.”
Frederick’s presence and participation in last week’s workouts was cause for celebration among his teammates, but the Wisconsin product is purposely taking it slow.
“I have been working out with the team,” Frederick said on Saturday. “We eased kind of back into that to make sure that everything’s healthy and stable before we start going heavy, but as far as on-the-field stuff, I’m doing almost everything. We’ll have some stuff modified in OTAs, but most of that is for the shoulder. You don’t want to re-injure something while it’s coming back from the surgery. But as far as on the field, I feel good, and in the weight room in my other auxiliary lifts, I’m doing really well there as well. So for the most part, I feel really good. We won’t know until I get out there and put the pads on and take my first rep whether or not it’s going to go well.”
Frederick admits that the first step on this long road to recovery was simply identifying his opponent through a battery of tests. “There were a lot of things thrown out over the course of time,” It behaves a lot like MS [multiple sclerosis]. It behaves a lot like polio, West Nile. A lot of things, as you do more tests, you rule those out. There is not a test that says this is what it is.”
Even once the determination of Guillain-Barre Syndrome was made, the mystery still wasn’t solved right away.
“I had never heard of it,” Frederick admitted. “Neither did most people, not even the doctors. The neurosurgeon had only seen it twice. He is one of the top neurosurgeons in the country. When you have something that’s rare, that’s when you know there is something going on. That’s why it took a little bit for the diagnosis. It’s hard.”
Frederick went on to detail the scary warning signs that crept up on him during last season’s training camp.
“I knew from the beginning that something wasn’t right. I had people in the organization that said they knew at the beginning something was wrong. I had no problem in minicamp. It was the first day of training camp that I felt numbness in my toes on the charter on the way out there [to Oxnard, California]. For most of training camp, I practiced without being able to feel my toes or my hands. So when I snapped the ball, I just trusted that the ball was there. You have a certain feeling when it hits the quarterback’s hands. I knew Dak [Prescott] well enough that it was there. The most telling thing, the reason we really looked into, more so than the numbness, was in the weight room and not being able to do much. In training camp, the weights are not that heavy and when I couldn’t do that, that is when it’s a red bell. Those are things you see in one-on-ones, getting pushed back. It could be because I was tired or having an off day. But when you have that and can’t feel your feet, it’s hard to maintain any sort of balance.”
Frederick spent the season rehabbing, but he maintained a strong presence with the team and even served as an informal coach for his fellow O-linemen during games. He feels the time spent studying the game from afar will only make him a better player once he steps on the field again. Now he’s close to that goal, and his fellow Cowboys say they can see the Frederick of old.
“I can’t overstate how important it is to have Travis back,” linebacker Sean Lee told the media, as per the team’s website. “To see what he dealt with during the year, some of the issues he did, and to see him running recently on the field, maybe looking faster? To have that back, it’s unbelievable.”
It may be unbelievable to Frederick, too. The star center admits now that there were times he couldn’t be sure he’d ever play again.
“That thought crosses your mind,” Frederick said. “That thought crosses your mind certainly at diagnosis and again when it was declining to the point where I was having a hard time walking. Those things definitely happened. But once the improvement started and it happened at such an impressive rate, it makes you think, ‘OK, maybe there’s a chance here, and if it continues at this rate, I don’t see any reason why I can’t be back to 100 percent.”