Jason Pinkston got emotional running through the tunnel as smoke and flames shot up all around him. It was the Browns’ first preseason game of the year, but for Pinkston it was much more than that: It was the first time that he was playing football in a real game setting again. The first time since laying in a hospital bed with a life-threatening blood clot in his left lung.
“It felt pretty good, you know,” Pinkston said of the game. “It was definitely good to get out there and finally get that first time being back out on the field versus an opponent for the first time in ten months.”
The road back has been long and hard, and he’s still not quite all the way back. Physically, health wise he is at 100 percent, but football wise the 25-year old is still trying to get back to full health. But he says he is getting close. It has certainly been a roller coaster year for the former left tackle from the University of Pittsburgh. After starting at left guard for the first six games of the season, Pinkston was having difficulty breathing and was taken to the hospital. It was there that tests revealed the blood clot that could have killed him.
“It’s ten months I wish I could just forget and erase,” said Pinkston. ”But it happened. That’s a part of the game, injuries and things like that happen. It’s part of the game. A little bit of adversity and you have to deal with it.”
Jason spent a week in the hospital. His season was over.
“Everyday it crossed my mind that there might be a chance, that I might not play again,” said Pinkston. Everyday.”
Laying in a hospital bed with little more to do than think can be a very scary and lonely place. Jason did what he could to stay positive and pass the time. His faith and his friends helped him get through. He prayed a lot. He had a lot of people praying for him. He talked to his teammates everyday. They came and visited him in the hospital. A couple coaches came and visited him as well.
“I tried to take it as best you can,” he said. “It was really out of my hands, there was nothing I could do.”
The week that Pinkston was in the hospital was the week that Mike Holmgren stepped down as president of the Cleveland Browns. It was an unsettling time for the organization and for Jason. The front office that drafted him was in the process of changing. Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert weren’t going to be around when and if Jason could make a full recovery. The head coach who had trusted in his abilities and started him from his first game as a rookie was going to soon be gone.
“I worried about [my spot on the team] at first,” said Pinkston. “Coaches were going to be replaced. Then Mr. Holmgren stepped down. He actually came and visited me in the hospital. I have a great regard for him. But it definitely crossed my mind that I don’t know where I stand, because when you’re out, you’re out and it’d be next man up.”
You couldn’t blame Pinkston for wondering about his job. It isn’t the norm around the league, but the Browns have been fortunate to draft offensive linemen lately that don’t miss snaps let alone games. It started with the man who played immediately to Pinkston’s left. Tackle Joe Thomas is more than just a pro-bowl left tackle. He has been an iron man. Thomas has played every down on offense since he was drafted in 2007. That’s 96 straight games, longer than most NFL careers.
To Pinkston’s right was Alex Mack. The center also started and played every snap of his career since he was selected by the Browns in 2009. That’s a span of 64 games. Shaun Lauvao was the right guard for every game in 2011 and 2012. Mitchell Schwartz started last season at right tackle as a rookie and played every snap. When Pinkston went down, John Greco was the next man up, and he performed quite well, finishing the rest of the season at left guard and earning a contract extension from the team at the start of camp.
Jason came to camp to compete with Lauvao and Greco for a starting spot. He had a slight disadvantage, trying to work back into football shape. He was working mostly with the second team for the first two weeks of camp, when Shaun Lauvao went down with an ankle injury. Lauvao underwent arthroscopic surgery, thrusting Pinkston back into the starting unit.
And that’s where Jason works in practice now, learning the offense and learning to play the right side.
“It’s more of a fast pace, uptempo,” he said. “There’s a lot of guard pulling, pulling left and pulling right. I like it. It’s definitely better now than what I’ve experienced before. Coach Turner has done an outstanding job. He’s putting a lot of pressure on us to get up to the line and get things going and working hard. The pressure he has on us from him to our offensive line coach is tremendous and I think it’s going to help us in the long run in these game situations.”
Much has been made of the downfield nature of head coach Rob Chudzinski’s offense, an offense that he learned while working with new Browns offensive coordinator Norv Turner. Does a downfield passing game mean the offensive line has to hold their blocks longer?
“Not necessarily,”. said Pinkston. “We have a lot of motions and shifts and things like that. There’s going to be play action, and things like that. There’s going to be downfield, and some blocks are going to be harder than others, and some blocks are going to be easier than others but that’s part of the game and part of playing the offensive line. We’re going to have to block as long as we’re needed to.”
A faster tempo has certainly been on display at camp so far, and in the preseason game on Thursday. The Browns are trying to get to the line quicker, make their reads and run the play before the defense has a chance to react to what they are seeing. It would seem that a tempo like that would demand that offensive linemen be in better condition than normal. Not so according to Jason.
“You don’t have to be in better condition, but you definitely have to be conditioned,” Pinkston clarified. “There’s going to be times where we go at a fast pace and that’s fine. I think we’re all in pretty good shape. Even when we came into camp running the conditioning test, and now I don’t see too many people gassed. Our first series was a 15-play drive and for the most part everyone was fine. In the huddle you can tell when someone’s breathing hard, and everyone was fine.”
Pinkston should know who was and wasn’t in shape in the huddle. He spent more time there than any of the Browns other offensive linemen. Jason started at right guard, and played all the snaps with the first unit, but also played there with the second unit, as he practiced with them all week. The move to right guard is something that Jason still has to get used to.
“I’m getting there,” he said. “It’s definitely backwards for me right now, but I’m getting there. I’m working on it everyday. It’s been a struggle, but it’s part of the game and I have to adapt. This is my first time I’ve had my right hand down since probably 2007. So it’s a definite change.”
So now Pinkston is the team’s right guard, at least until Shaun Lauvao is able to recover from his ankle surgery. The team estimates that could take around six weeks, or into the third week of the regular season. By then it could be Pinkston who has the upper hand at the spot.
“It’s very unfortunate,” Pinkston says of Lauvao’s injury. “You never want to see any of your teammates go down. That was a tough injury for Shaun. I know he put a lot of good work in this offseason with (former Pro Bowl center) LeCharles Bentley. You never want to see anybody get hurt. That’s part of the game. You’re the next guy up, you have to go in and do a good job. Shaun was doing a great job at right guard, so I don’t want to let myself down, or let the team down or let the guy next to me down. I gotta step up. Time is limited right now, I’ve been thrown in there at right guard and so I’m trying to learn as fast as I can and get the job done.”
Whether or not Pinkston is completely comfortable playing on the right side, or if his body is back into the same shape it was when he went down last season, Jason is glad to be back on the field playing the game he loves.
(Photo: Jon Cole Photography for WFNY)