Nobody would have blamed Vita Vea if he had called it a season and began looking forward to the 2021 campaign.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers mammoth defensive tackle suffered a gruesome right ankle injury in a contest against the Chicago Bears on Oct. 8. The ankle was badly fractured and the overwhelming belief was that Vea’s season was over.
His next important football game was supposed to be 11 months away.
But Vea recovered to play in the NFC Championship Game victory over the Green Bay Packers on Jan. 24 and will be back in the trenches in Super Bowl LV when the Buccaneers play the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday in Tampa.
A key component of the situation was this: While nearly everybody was ruling Vea out for the season, he wasn’t declaring himself done.
“I think it was the next day or that night — I think I had it in my head,” Vea said of making it a goal to return during the playoffs. “Obviously, I was down and out that night, but I think that night I told myself, ‘If you just push through this, push through rehab, you might have a chance.’
“They told me I might have a small chance of making it, so I took those chances of what they said, and I really took it to heart. That’s what I stuck with.”
The payoff occurred when the 6-foot-4, 347-pound Vea returned against the Packers and played in 33 snaps. The strong run-stopper helped limit Green Bay to 67 rushing yards with a long gain of 12.
Vea, who turns 26 on Friday, didn’t suffer any setbacks and said he is healthy and ready for an increased role in the Super Bowl.
“I think I’m completely healed,” Vea said. “Otherwise, I don’t think I would be playing if I wasn’t.”
Having Vea adds another standout to a defensive unit filled with top-line players.
The Buccaneers led the NFL in rushing defense (80.6 yards per game) even with Vea missing the final 11 regular-season games. Putting him back in the interior next to elite run-stopper Ndamukong Suh only makes the Tampa Bay defense more stout.
Vea was sidelined when Kansas City recorded a 27-24 victory over host Tampa Bay in Week 12 but Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is well aware of his prowess.
“He’s a guy that you’ve got to know where he’s at every single play,” Mahomes said. “He obviously is super disruptive in the run game, but he’s just as good as a pass rusher. You don’t see guys like that — playing that position, that can rush the passer like that — that much.
“For him, he’s a special talent and I’ll have to know where he’s at every single play in order to not let him disrupt the entire game.”
Vea was a first-round pick (12th overall) in 2018 out of Washington. In 34 NFL games (29 starts), he has 73 tackles and 7.5 sacks.
He had 10 tackles and two sacks before the injury, which occurred when he was tackling Chicago running back David Montgomery. Teammate Devin White also was closing in to help make the tackle and Vea’s right ankle got caught under White’s body.
Nearly four months later, Vea will play in the biggest game of his career. He looks back at the journey and understands that his positive mindset played a big part on why he made it back this season.
“I don’t think it was that hard, honestly,” Vea said of his attitude. “I’ve got a good group of people around me — I had my family and friends in my ear the whole time, my teammates over here. I stayed over here and I stayed in meetings. I was coming to position meetings, defensive meetings and stuff like that.
“I think that just helped me stay locked into football, really keep my mind off the injury and focus on learning more about football.”
–Field Level Media