The first two weeks after surgery were the worst, the pain was so paralyzing, so incessant, that Nyheim Hines couldn’t even imagine getting out of bed.
The mere thought of ordering takeout made him shudder: that would require limping to the front door of his apartment to pick it up. No, thanks. It’s not happening. On trips to rehab, she would hold onto the armrests of the back seat, bracing herself for any bumps in the road, fearing that even the smallest ones would cause pain in her knee. In the hospital, when the doctors asked him to stretch his leg, he wanted to shake his head and refuse, convinced that the stitches were going to break right then and there.
“Honestly, there were times where I just wanted to scream and cry,” Hines said. The Athletic, speaking publicly for the first time about his final months. “It was just rehab, man, but it was really hard.”
This wasn’t supposed to be what August was going to be like for Hines, the crafty sixth-year running back and special teams standout for the Buffalo Bills. He was supposed to help a contender prepare to reach the Super Bowl.
After the Colts’ November 2022 trade, after his two touchdown returns brought down the house at Orchard Park in the regular season finale, six days after teammate Damar Hamlin went into cardiac arrest in the Cincinnati field, and then an expanded role in offseason practices. , Hines was starting to feel part of something special in Buffalo.
He spent last season studying the playbook for two hours each night; now he coldly knew it, getting 100 points on the quizzes the coaches handed out. He no longer needed his position coach, Kelly Skipper, to translate plays from what his former coaches in Indianapolis called them. He saw his reps grow in practice. In Hines’ mind, 2023 was going to be the breakout season he had been chasing since he first entered the league.
Then, two days before the Fourth of July, he got into a Sea-Doo and lost a year of his prime.
The most devastating part?
All he was doing, Hines insists, was filling it with gas. The trip was a few minutes, maximum.
It wasn’t the accident but the surgery that would leave Hines with what he calls “two weeks of the worst pain I’ve ever experienced in my life.” Meanwhile, he found himself in a brief but bitter contract dispute with the Bills.
“Do you know what I tell people?” Hines says, going back to that day. “I literally tell people that my life is like that movie ‘Final Destination.'”
He had not been in the Sea-Doos that day. In fact, she hadn’t been with them even once all weekend.
Hines prefers wakesurfing, gliding through the waves right behind the boat, and that’s what he had been doing for nearly two hours on July 2. He had rented a house with friends on Lake Norman, just north of Charlotte, and was fine letting everyone else cruise the water in the Sea-Doos. His training camp would begin in a matter of weeks.
But after a while, when the Sea-Doos were running out of fuel, Hines decided to get into one and fill it up with gas. He was the only professional athlete in the group, the one with the $9 million contract, and he wanted to help.
“People said there was little gas,” he recalls, “and I was being a good guy. I said, ‘Okay, I’ll get on one of them and pay.'”
After Hines filled the tank at the marina, he began driving the Sea-Doo back to the house, intending to return to the boat. According to the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission accident report, Hines stopped in a prohibited area behind a row of boats. He didn’t get very far. A ship was approaching in his direction, so he tried to avoid it.
“I tried to move to the right of the boat,” Hines told police that day, according to the accident report. “As I moved to the right, they hit me.”
Another Sea-Doo slammed into its right side, throwing Hines into the water.
According to the report, it was Dylan Peebles, a close friend and former college track teammate of Hines at North Carolina State, who was driving the other Sea-Doo. Peebles was later charged with negligent and reckless operation and failure to have adequate boating safety requirements.
“I was driving straight and I didn’t see any boat ahead,” Peebles told police, according to the report. “Then my friend saw it and turned around and I hit him while he turned around. “He was going slow (and) I was going 20 mph.”
Peebles was traveling between 20 and 40 miles per hour, according to the report, and the combined damage to the two Sea-Doos was estimated at $17,000. Two months after the accident, Hines hired an attorney to explore his legal options.
“I think the facts here are what they are,” said Brad Sohn, who represents Hines. “No. 1, there is absolutely nothing to suggest that Nyheim did anything wrong here. And his heart goes out to anyone who works as hard as he does to be the player he is in the NFL.”
Both Hines and Sohn declined to further discuss the details of the accident, citing impending litigation.
Even in the days after the incident, Hines did not believe he had suffered a serious injury, and certainly nothing that would cost him time on the football field. Both knees were a little sore. He iced them that night.
Four or five days later, Hines says, he headed to a nearby track to exercise. When he started running, his left knee hurt. “Strange,” he said to himself. “They hit me on the right side.”
Something was wrong. She called his agent, who performed an MRI.
The results were heartbreaking. Hines learned that he had torn the ACL and ACL in his left knee. His season ended before it began.
Hines knows what everyone must have been thinking the moment the news broke in late July: NFL player injured in jet ski accident, out for season.
He was probably texting. Be reckless. Being immature.
“It’s a terrible look and it’s been very difficult,” he says. “The opportunity I had (this season), and the truth is, don’t even bother with jet skis. If I was doing jumping jacks or being stupid, I wouldn’t even be really upset (about this). But it’s the fact that he literally wasn’t even riding the jet skis. He was just pumping gas.”
The lesson has been difficult to assimilate. Hines is devoted to his body during the season, religious when it comes to his routine: needle therapy, hours in NormaTec compression boots, nightly massages, Epsom salt baths. Before the accident, he had only missed one game in his five-year NFL career, and he says he has only missed six since high school. He once spent three years in Indianapolis without missing a single practice, ridiculously rare durability for a running back.
All the work he’s done since entering the league, with the goal of prolonging his prime as long as possible, and then this happens: a strange, untimely accident with serious consequences, costing him an entire season and threatening his career.
“It’s something I’ll grow out of,” Hines says. “I wasn’t doing anything wrong, but I can’t control everything around me… that’s a position I won’t put myself in, at least until I’m done playing.”
Hines’ surgery was performed by Dr. Neal ElAttrache in Los Angeles on August 1. 8; Rehabilitation began two days later. The first few weeks were total agony: it hurt to sleep, it hurt to move, it hurt to do anything. Little by little she has been progressing. “I’m through the worst,” she says, “but Lord, have mercy, the worst was terrible.”
The Bills, as expected, were not thrilled to hear about the accident. In the spring, as offseason workouts wrapped up, since-fired offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey had made it clear to general manager Brandon Beane how excited he was to open up more of the playbook to Hines in 2023. That’s what Beane imagined when he made the deal with the Colts last year, calling Hines a minute before the trade deadline and asking him, “We’re happy to have you, can you be on a flight in three hours?”
The disappointment was evident when Beane met with reporters on the eve of training camp.
“It’s not like I can go out and find another Nyheim Hines,” he said.
Hines had renegotiated his deal with the Bills before the season, signing a two-year, $9 million deal through 2024, spreading out some incentives (a signing bonus, coaching bonuses) over time. But because the accident occurred outside of the team facility, the Bills placed him on the NFI list, which technically does not require the team to pay him anything.
Suddenly, Hines was out of millions of dollars.
After months of back and forth, the two sides agreed to a smaller sum that they were both comfortable with.
“We were both upset, both sides were upset,” Hines says. “I didn’t expect that to happen. They didn’t expect this to happen. We both had big plans for me. And they know that I take responsibility and they knew that this is going to kill me more than them.”
Matter settled, sobering lesson learned, Hines hopes to pick up where he left off in Buffalo next year.
“They treated me very well at the end of the day and took care of everything,” he says, “and I’m a member of the Buffalo Bills and I hope to come back next year and earn the right to win. “
He misses everything, even those long, hard, exhausting Wednesday practices in the freezing cold, the ones he used to hate.
“I will never take Wednesday practice for granted again,” Hines says.
He watches the Bills on “NFL Sunday Ticket.” He goes to rehab. He plays guitar three hours a day, is working on getting his real estate license and is taking online classes at North Carolina State University, where he is hours away from earning his bachelor’s degree.
“The truth is, I never took football for granted, but after this, I know what this game means to me,” Hines says. “I would do anything to come back right now.”
The Bills could use him. The Bills, a trendy Super Bowl pick before the season, are just 6-5 and currently out of the AFC playoff picture. After a two-game losing streak earlier this month, Dorsey was fired.
One thing Hines has promised himself: He won’t get into another Sea-Doo and wake-surf until his NFL career is over, period.
“I don’t want to say it was bad luck, because I don’t really believe in luck, but I hope the Lord is just trying to prepare me for something, because it’s been hard,” Hines says. “I know I won’t forget what I went through, especially the pain.
“This will be a great story when it’s over, I’ll make sure of it.”
(Illustration: Samuel Richardson / The Athletic; photos: Nic Antaya and Bryan M. Bennett / Getty Images)