He lay on a hospital bed in the emergency room in September 2014, looking down at his mangled leg, and was told his career was all but finished. One freak injury had rendered Josh Sweat a never-was. An urban legend for those in Chesapeake, Virginia—nothing more.
He remembers hearing his doctor’s message loud and clear and…come again?
“He’s like, ‘Hey, man, you’re probably not going to play football again. I’m 98 percent sure. And we’re probably going to have to remove the bottom of your leg.’ And that’s how he left it,” Sweat remembers. “He said it was likely with the dislocation, especially at that angle—because the artery runs around the back.”
With one bad break on one meaningless extra-point rush, Sweat had been transformed from the “Next Jadeveon Clowney” at Oscar F. Smith High into a kid who’d need a prosthetic leg and a new career plan. His left knee was dislocated. Artery damage was expected. No blood would flow to the rest of his leg.
“The bottom of the leg would’ve died if it didn’t have enough blood,” Sweat says. “Arteries can be repaired, but if it’s damaged too much, then you have to remove it.”
Of course, he was told this before any tests had even been run. An approach that ticks him off in retrospect. He easily could’ve been scared to death, presented with this worst-case scenario. Instead, a weird thing happened: He didn’t panic. Part of it was being “stubborn,” he admits, but Sweat is also analytical to the extreme. He takes nothing at face value. As he was told he may need to have his leg amputated, Sweat refused to believe it.
His knee was swollen, but he could still feel his foot. Nothing was numb.
He had hope.
“I’m going to bounce back,” he told himself. “I’m not listening to him.”
Four years later, there’s Josh Sweat sprawled on a table again but—this time—with that knee firmly in place. In a downtown Indianapolis hotel room, his joints are being twisted and bent by a trainer, his muscles massaged. Sweat’s eyes are glued to a cell phone screen, obsessing over his 40-yard dash. He watches his stance, his get-off and his acceleration, hunting for clues.
The Florida State defensive end introduces himself as a 6’4″, 251-pound nightmare who’ll haunt your quarterback for years. And indeed he’s a sight to see. Humans this long (his wingspan is 84 ⅛”) and large were never intended to run as fast or jump as high he does. His 40 at the combine (4.53) was best among defensive ends. His vertical leap (39.5″) was first and would rank fourth amongst running backs and tied for second amongst wide receivers. His broad jump of 124″ also would’ve made the top 10 for backs and receivers.
Darron Cummings/Associated Press
Nobody in Scene A should ever reach this Scene B. Nobody should go from being told they’ll likely lose a leg to having the type of athleticism NFL teams drool over. But that’s precisely what Josh Sweat has done.
Now…when Sweat looks to the NFL, he doesn’t see anyone like him: “I don’t know if you can think of anyone else.”
Now…Sweat can be a pass-rusher the NFL has never seen: “Most definitely. I think so. I definitely believe I can be that.”
But then? The night his Oscar F. Smith team played Western Branch, everything should have crumbled to smithereens.
His coach, Richard Morgan, still calls the 56-14 win the worst night of his coaching career. After one of Western Branch’s scores, on an extra-point block, Sweat rushed the kicker untouched. While Sweat recalls a “double-edge rush,” Morgan insists he’d never put players in such danger and says Sweat actually rushed up the B-gap. Either way, Sweat’s foot got caught in the grass, and a teammate also rushing the kicker crashed into the side of his leg.
“And one of my legs just didn’t come off the ground fast enough,” Sweat says, “so it got caught in the grass. It just snapped in half.”
Adds Morgan, “The force of Josh going one way and someone coming another way, Josh couldn’t avoid him because he didn’t see him. … I’ve never seen it happen in my life, and I hope I never see it happen again.”
The knee dislocated and Sweat tore his ACL, MCL and PCL.
William Washington, Sweat’s father, calls it a freak play that wouldn’t happen again in a thousand years. His son needed to get dinged the exact moment his foot was planted. As he puts it, that’s a “car-accident kind of injury.” Yet Sweat didn’t scream. Didn’t writhe in pain much at all. All he did was look at the bottom half of his leg bent at 45 degrees and think, People shouldn’t be able to return from this. He was worried most about keeping his mother calm on the field. “Don’t let her look!” he repeated. “It’s going to be all right!” he repeated.
Of course, nobody could ignore the gore.
Son describes a leg “snapped in half.”
Dad describes a leg completely out of socket.
“What happened is the shin came down and pulled all of that part down and had to be put back into the socket,” Washington says. “So basically the knee came out—that round ball part is attached to the shin, and it came out and had to be put back into the socket.”
Nobody in the hospital room that night was thinking about football. Simple quality of life took focus: Will you be able to walk? Will you lose your leg? Will your feet work? Will all the nerves work? The medics literally grabbed Sweat’s shin, pulled it, lifted it, lodged it back into place and—miraculously—Sweat did not suffer any artery damage.
The way Sweat explains it, he was hit on the “LCL” side of the knee so everything “kind of folded” instead of tearing.
No nerve damage. No joint damage. A “miracle,” he says, shaking his head. “Amazing.”
A month later, Dr. Russell F. Warren, the New York Giants team doctor, performed surgery. Sweat was confined to a wheelchair for two-and-a-half months total.
All along, the powerhouse schools never abandoned Sweat, who was ranked the fifth-best recruit in the country by Scout. Alabama, Georgia, Notre Dame, Ohio State, USC—you name it, they made an offer. He preferred Florida State, but then rumors started swirling that coach Jimbo Fisher wanted to redshirt him. So Washington called up Fisher, who shot the rumors down. And a few short months after the injury, Sweat committed to be a Seminole.
Not only that, Sweat was healthy enough to start as a true freshman. As planned. He went on to post three solid seasons for FSU. In 2017, he had 56 tackles (12.5 for loss) with 5.5 sacks.
Michael Chang/Getty Images
But he never did bust out as that preordained “Next Clowney.”
Never quite met the highest of expectations. His own.
When it was time to turn in a test, Sweat would refuse. Repeatedly. He was only in elementary school, but he obsessed over every question. He raced through every avenue in his brain for answers and wasn’t afraid to speak up to his teacher.
Finally, a teacher phoned home to Washington.
“He’d tell the teacher, ‘I’m not done. It’s not perfect. It’s not right,'” Washington remembers. “He was adamant that, ‘No, I’m going to get this right before I turn it in.’ He’s always been that way. You can tell him something, he’ll listen to it and then go, ‘OK’—and then he’ll go and research it.
“He’s not going to take anything at face value.”
Sweat grew up playing chess as much as throwing any ball around. Into college, he didn’t call Dad for beer money. No, he needed money for computer parts. In his dorm room, he built computers from scratch, with a coolant and everything. Any downtime was spent competing at high-end gaming tournaments in Florida.
Sweat needs to stimulate his mind. Challenge his beliefs. Push himself to new limits.
“Really, I think it gets me in trouble,” Sweat says. “I ask ‘Why?’ a decent amount of the time. Why am I doing this? Not to be a smart guy but just to understand.”
Hence, the tinge of frustration in Sweat’s voice when he looks back at a merely very good, not lights-out great, collegiate career. His recovery from that car accident of a leg injury has been gradual, partly because he never took that redshirt year so was constantly rehabbing (and rehabbing) simply to suit up. Sweat scanned into the team’s gym so often on his own time, that one Florida State staffer called Washington to ask if he could settle his son down. They were worried he was wearing out that knee.
Sweat insisted to his Dad that he wasn’t. Rather, he was hitting personal targets that exceeded anything any trainer could give him. OK, so the monster within appeared sporadically in Tallahassee. Take his sack of Lamar Jackson:
Or his wincing sack up the gut against Wake Forest.
But Florida State often played him inside, dulling his electric first step, and that leg was never 100 percent. Everyone around Sweat knows how dominant he can be on two good legs.
Morgan remembers Sweat sacking a quarterback five times in a game on defense while hauling in an 80-yard touchdown on offense. He’d send Sweat deep on post patterns—nobody could cover him.
The high school footage? Laughable.
As a junior, Sweat racked up 22 sacks. And of course, this was only months after Clowney famously walloped Michigan’s Vincent Smith. That play heard ’round the world, Morgan explains, was the type everyone in Chesapeake witnessed regularly.
“A healthy Josh Sweat is the best player in the draft,” Morgan says. “A healthy Josh Sweat? There’s not a better football player.”
A healthy Sweat, recalls one former high school teammate, was just as unstoppable in track and field as in football. A “freak of nature,” Kamathi Holsey says. Sweat toasted kids who were 50-plus pounds heavier in the shot and disc one moment, before then toasting kids half his size in the 100 and high jump.
In football, Holsey points to Morgan lining up a younger Sweat against future Virginia defensive tackle Andrew Brown in the classical mano a mano “board drill” in which two players basically bash into each other sumo-style.
At the time, Brown was ranked the No. 1 defensive tackle in the country. Sweat, Holsey remembers, “destroyed” him.
“He’s the best athlete I’ve ever seen,” Holsey says. “Before he blew his knee out, there was nothing he couldn’t do.”
As Holsey notes, most all prospects (himself included) would’ve treated their bodies like special cargo and absolutely redshirted after snapping their leg. The two actually had multiple long phone conversations about it, too. But in each convo, Sweat was adamant: “I am not redshirting. I need to play.” He knew sitting out would’ve hurt more than any pain on the field.
Holsey echoes Morgan.
“Honestly, he would’ve been the No. 1 pick if he never blew his knee out,” Holsey says. “It’d be a different conversation. He would be the No. 1 pick in the draft.
“The best athlete I’ve ever seen. He’s crazy.”
Which is why those around Sweat cannot contain their excitement.
They say he’s a player, once and for all, at full strength. Of course, with the first round less than two weeks away, Draft Hype Season has reached fever pitch. So any excitement reaching this extreme should include a heavy dose of skepticism. But they say that his combine performance was evidence that the athlete they know—finally—has returned with a vengeance. The brace is off and the Superman cape is on. Sweat actually should’ve done even better than that 4.53. In training, he was consistently clocking in the low-4.4s.
Dad made a point to take a step back this offseason, to get out of the way. But he knows his son’s performance skyrockets when he’s happy. Sweat wasn’t happy for stretches in college. Now, he is beaming.
“His production rises when he’s happy,” Washington says. “I can tell when he’s feeling good. I can tell when he’s happy just by how he plays, how he walks, how he carries himself.”
Those close to Sweat insist he’s not blowing smoke when he speaks about being a generational talent. About the fact that there is no current NFL comparison for his skill set. When Sweat tells family and friends that he’ll set the NFL record for sacks as a rookie, Dad insists he’s not joking.
Anything feels possible after clearing all final hurdles this offseason with former NFL wideout Yo Murphy. First, Murphy convinced Sweat to take off that knee brace because physically it was slowing him down and mentally it was serving as a nasty reminder of Sweat’s lowest low. From there, Murphy awakened muscles and joints that’ve been dormant since that injury. The two worked religiously on Sweat’s “posterior chain” and “glute activation.” Murphy has trained the likes of Sammy Watkins, Allen Robinson and Nelson Agholor—and soon Sweat’s 10-yard burst equaled that of any elite wide receiver.
“A lot of people say they want to be on the edge,” Murphy says. “Josh is past the edge. He just gains ground. He’s so long. Powerful.”
Of course, running a 40 and leaping vertically in tights is one thing. There are countless combine All-Stars who flamed out in pads. Sweat must develop more pass-rushing moves.
Gregory Payan/Associated Press
But, at least in theory, Sweat could be that menace who destroys a league in which the need to disrupt up front is at an all-time high. Physical contact is regulated like never before in the secondary, yet one forced fumble hijacked the momentum in the Super Bowl two years ago and another forced fumble won a Super Bowl last year.
“Speed,” Sweat says. “Relentless effort. Running to the ball. Everything. I want to put it all together.”
If he does, he could be the steal of the draft. Bleacher Report draft expert Matt Miller projects Sweat as a third-rounder, though after the combine he also named him the “biggest riser” among edge-rushers. Others now have him as high as the late first.
Washington says whatever team does draft his son will be getting “a different guy,” one driven by a seek-and-conquer mentality.
“I think he’ll set some goals and if he reaches those goals, he may be that guy to walk away,” Washington says. “I can’t stress it enough—this doesn’t make you who you are. It’s just what you do. It’s the next challenge in life.”
The father of an NFL prospect admitting the NFL prospect may not want to play in the NFL forever may sound strange, but his point is that Sweat thinks two, three, four steps ahead.
Life wouldn’t have ended for him in that hospital room if he did indeed lose his leg. Sweat would’ve put that 3.8 GPA to use. Right now, the knee is perfectly fine, so all energy is funneled into being the player he was meant to be all along.
Those close to Sweat repeat he’s driven by an “obsessive” personality. He obsessed over his rehab. Obsessed over that 40 time. And now, finally, he will obsess over terrorizing quarterbacks and winning a Super Bowl.
Massive, bear paw-sized hands resting on a table, Sweat smiles.
He once saw his leg snapped in half. Now he sees an unlimited future.
“There’s no telling anymore,” Sweat says. “I overcame the worst. That’s probably the worst possible scenario besides a spine injury or a hip dislocation. …
“There’s no telling what I could possibly go through.”