When Kirk Cousins rose to his feet after injuring his right foot in the fourth quarter on Oct. 29, he couldn't feel the Lambeau Field grass beneath him. He refused help getting to the sideline, hopping on his left foot while searching for symptoms that would tell him it was just another sprained ankle.
Even when he pressed his right foot into the ground and felt nothing, he hoped it was perhaps because a nerve wasn't firing. "I was like, 'I'll work through that; I can play without feeling my foot,' " he said.
Minutes later, in the Vikings medical tent, Cousins said Dr. Chris Coetzee, the team's foot and ankle specialist, needed about "a half a second" to tell him he'd torn his Achilles. The team called for a cart to take Cousins to the locker room, and the quarterback clapped for teammates to preserve the Vikings' two-touchdown fourth-quarter lead and finish with a win in a building he had just one victory at as their starting QB. Inside, the numbness his denial had provided was starting to fade.
"A lot of thoughts go through your head, and one of them was: 'Is this my last time playing football?' " he said Friday in his first news conference since the injury. "Now, a couple of weeks later, you know the answer is: 'No, it's not going to be,' but when those thoughts are going through your head, you kind of realize the routes this could go."
Cousins is more optimistic now, with his right foot out of a cast and a rehab plan in place after consulting with the Vikings' doctors and his bodywork specialist Chad Cook. He's able to revisit the footage of the game, where he was wearing a live microphone, and laugh about how much he was in denial after the injury. He compared rehab notes with Aaron Rodgers, who suffered a similar injury in Week 1; returned to the Vikings' facility quicker than even coaches expected; and found solace in the prayers and well wishes that arrived in larger quantities than he thought they would.
There are days when he is still angry, when "I've had my fist up a little bit in my prayer times with God," he said. The answer, he's realized, is holding his career loosely.
"I have played this sport feeling like I don't own this career. I've just got to steward it," he said. "And that's always helped me, because it is chaotic and curveballs do get thrown at you. When you hold it really tightly and say, 'This is mine,' that's when you can get yourself in trouble. And so I'm learning to play the sport holding my hands open and saying, 'God, whatever you want to do, if that means a torn Achilles, I've got to accept that.' "
The Vikings' first two games of November were the first two Cousins has missed in his career because of his injury; he watched their win over the Falcons with his foot propped up on a couch, tossing footballs to his son Cooper in the basement of his house, and stayed home with his younger son Turner while his wife, Julie, took Cooper to last week's win over the Saints.
The first significant injury of Cousins' pro career has also forced the notoriously fastidious quarterback to figure out how to use his time, through a process that sounds very unlike him. "Just trial and error," he said.
He's settled on a routine that begins with the Vikings' 90-minute quarterback meeting, where he'll learn the game plan alongside the team's active QBs "and offer an occasional thought, if I have one," he said. Then, he heads to rehab while teammates are lifting weights or attending additional meetings. When the Vikings practice, he heads home to continue rehab with Cook. Coach Kevin O'Connell texts him, asking for any thoughts he has on the game plan or opportunities to attack opposing defenses.
Cousins has dined with teammates in the lunch room and wheeled through the locker room on a foot scooter Thursday while wearing a Creed T-shirt. On Tuesday, his first day out of a cast, Cousins went with Julie and Cooper to serve Thanksgiving meals alongside teammates and their families at the St. Paul Salvation Army.
"Based upon the timeline, we really didn't think we'd be able to have him much in the building, and he has already been in a bunch of quarterback meetings," O'Connell said Wednesday. "I know him and Josh [Dobbs] have talked a lot, him and I have talked a lot. He knows our offense — he knows it as well as any of us, pretty much. It is kind of similar to our normal dialogue of Monday and Tuesday, and as he gets into his tape study, I just [told] him, 'I just want you to be involved. I just want you to be around our team.' He is going to start traveling when he gets cleared to do that. I think it will be a huge bonus for everybody to have him around."
The Vikings added two void years to Cousins' contract this spring when the team and quarterback were unable to agree on a long-term extension, putting Cousins in line to become a free agent after the season. In recent weeks, both General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and O'Connell have indicated they want Cousins to return, though as Adofo-Mensah reiterated, whether or not that can happen will depend on negotiations.
At the time of his injury, Cousins was tied for the NFL lead in passing touchdowns, ranked second in yards, third in passer rating and fifth in completion percentage, despite having played three games without Justin Jefferson.
Cousins said again on Friday he wants to end his career in Minnesota. After Washington drafted him in the fourth round in 2012, he said he made it his goal to play his entire career for one team. When that didn't happen and he signed with the Vikings, he thought, "Not only do I want to be just a two-team quarterback, I want the run in [Minnesota] to go so well that I'm remembered as basically a one-team quarterback, that I played for the Minnesota Vikings."
Friday he said, "That desire hasn't changed. That's still the same. There's a lot that's out of my control in that. You can want a lot of things; that doesn't mean it's going to happen. So I keep an open mind, but certainly would love for that to be the case."
As with his injury, he's trying to hold his future loosely.
"It's not something you look back and say, 'Oh, in spite of that, I did this or was a part of this.' It's more of a: 'Because that happened, it made me better and enabled me to go where I want to go,'" he said. "So that's kind of the way I want to look at it. You kind of have to check back in five years and say, 'What happened?' Until then, you're just on the journey."