FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Vinny Curry saw bad news coming. As he walked off the field after the New York Jets‘ final minicamp practice last June, the defensive end was approached by team doctors and athletic trainers. Curry was struck immediately by the concerned looks on their faces. After weeks of revitalizing work with his new team, everything was about to go dark.
Doctors had discovered a high platelet count in his blood, and they wanted him to retake his blood test and go for an MRI — an imaging exam that confirmed their suspicions. Curry’s spleen was enlarged and needed to be removed as soon as possible. Because of a previously diagnosed blood disorder, it had swelled to the range of 28 to 32 centimeters, more than twice the average size.
“My spleen was actually getting ready to burst,” Curry recalled in an interview with ESPN. “It was one of those, ‘Are you F’ing kidding me?’ moments.”
After missing the 2021 season due to complications in the aftermath of his splenectomy, Curry returned to the field this week for the start of OTAs. In a moment of reflection on the first day, he took a knee, gave thanks and made sure to soak in everything.
Nearly one year after last year’s health scare, which could’ve been life threatening if it hadn’t been discovered, Curry is back and more determined than ever.
“No one loves football more than Vinny Curry,” Jets general manager Joe Douglas said. “No one.”
Curry, who turns 34 on June 30, has played a lot of football (121 games) and has won a lot of games over nine seasons, including a Super Bowl with the Philadelphia Eagles. He doesn’t need to do more to stamp his career a success, but he’s out there sweating and conditioning with men 10 years his junior.
“One thing about me: I don’t take life for granted,” he said. “I’m happy to be here and still be doing what I love to do.”
Curry was born with thalassemia, a rare and inherited blood disorder that causes the body to have less hemoglobin than normal, according to the Mayo Clinic. Thalassemia can cause anemia, which can lead to fatigue. Curry said his condition falls “under the sickle cell category.” One of the symptoms is an enlarged spleen.
He always managed it, from his high school days in Neptune, New Jersey, to his college career at Marshall, to the NFL.
“I’ve had this blood disorder my entire life,” said Curry. “I was born with it. Over time, the spleen was just growing.”
The Jets’ doctors made a great catch. The spleen, especially when enlarged, can rupture with a direct hit to the abdomen. Dr. Babak Sarani, a professor of surgery at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, said a ruptured spleen can result in “a life-threatening hemorrhage fairly quickly.” Curry said he never permitted himself to ponder the macabre, what-if scenarios, although he admitted, “It was a sickening and dark time for me because I didn’t know what was going to happen and what the future held.”
His spleen was removed a few weeks later, in July. At that point, Curry intended to play in 2021, so he started training — too hard, as it turned out. He also stopped taking his medication — a “miscommunication,” he called it — resulting in a blood clot.
That diagnosis, last August, ended his season because the blood thinners that were prescribed meant physical contact was prohibited. Curry was devastated. He felt helpless and bored. Instead of burying quarterbacks, he planted a rose garden, one of many household activities he adopted to pass the time.
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“A rose garden!” he said, still incredulous. “Come on, man!”
Curry stayed involved with the team, providing behind-the-scenes leadership while vowing to make a comeback. First, he had to get healthy for his wife, Daphne, and their two kids, ages 5 and 2.
“I’m a family man first,” he said. “The wife is reading about this at home with me, thinking, ‘You could possibly die.’ As for my career, pardon my French, but ‘F— the career, I’m just trying to get healthy.'”
Former Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark experienced a similar ordeal in 2007. Because of complications from the sickle cell trait, Clark underwent a splenectomy at age 28 before returned the following season and playing for another seven years. Before surgery, he weighed a dangerously low 160 pounds because of the infection in his spleen. His gall bladder and part of his liver also were removed.
Clark, now an ESPN analyst, called it an “extremely, extremely serious” condition, but he said the football player’s mentality is to get back on the field as soon as possible.
“Even though I was much younger than he is, the only thing you can think about is: If I can train, if I can walk, if I’m medically cleared, then why wouldn’t I play?” Clark said in a phone interview.
Clark said he altered his diet and his training program, took vitamins and saw a homeopathic doctor twice a month. He had no hesitation about returning to the field, saying, “None at all. For me, I was like, ‘I’m healthy now. They took out what was killing me.'” Curry said he’s living “a normal life” without medication or apprehension about physical contact.
Dr. Sarani, who did not himself treat Curry, said NFL players have “a level of pain tolerance that is entirely different from normal humans,” adding that Curry is out of danger because enough time has elapsed since the surgery.
“Almost one year out, he really should be back to his old self,” he said. A splenectomy puts a person at a higher risk for bacterial infections such as pneumonia and meningitis, Sarani said, which is why those patients are vaccinated before surgery.
The third-oldest player on the team, behind quarterback Joe Flacco, 37, and kicker Greg Zuerlein, 34, Curry, who has 32.5 career sacks, possesses an enthusiasm that belies his age. Douglas, whose front-office career intersected with Curry’s in Philadelphia, said the 6-foot-3, 275-pound lineman plays with the energy of a rookie.
“You can feel it coming off him when he’s on the field,” said Douglas.
Curry said he returned for two reasons: validation for his hard work and a strong desire to repay a debt to the organization. Though it wasn’t his fault, he hated that he wasn’t able to play last season. Call it competitive guilt.
“Now, with God’s grace, I feel better than ever,” he said. “My body took a year off from football, but I never stopped training. So it’s like I’m in tip-top shape and I’m ready to go. I’m already a hyper, high-energy dude, but I come to work even more hyper every day.”