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Bears release receiver Knox; sources say he’s unlikely to play because of spinal injury

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013 10:13 a.m. CDT

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(MCT) — Darryl Drake just wants Johnny Knox to live a normal life.

The former Bears receivers coach was saddened to hear the team terminated Knox’s contract Tuesday. Knox spent the entire 2012 season on the physically-unable-to-perform list following spinal fusion surgery and his contract was “tolled” to the 2013 season because of his being on PUP in the final year of his contract.

“I admire him for what he has been through and his effort to try to make it back,” Drake said Tuesday. “With something as devastating as what he has gone through, and when you look back at where he was and how far he has come, I’m proud of him.

“He had to work himself back up to where he could even walk. He had to work to get himself up out of bed. Hopefully, he’ll continue to work and get himself back to where he can have the quality of life that he needs to have.”

In terms of football being a part of Knox’s future, the outlook is bleak. Multiple sources with direct knowledge of Knox’s status said he is unlikely to play again because of the extent of the injury coupled with his slight build.

Technically speaking, the 6-foot, 185-pound Knox suffered a thoracic- lumbar junction fracture-dislocation with neurological involvement after being bent backward on a hit from 6-foot-3, 282-pound Seahawks defensive end Anthony Hargrove during a Dec. 18, 2011, game at Soldier Field. Put in simplest terms, Knox cracked his mid-back and sustained significant nerve damage.

Srdjan Mirkovic, the Bears’ spine consultant and an orthopedic surgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, performed a one-level vertebral fusion on Knox one day after the injury. The initial prognosis was four to six months of a recovery just to perform normal activities, and even longer before Knox could return to football.

That projection changed when additional soft tissue damage was discovered during surgery. Knox’s back was unstable, and there was more ligament damage than anticipated.

Alexander Ghanayem, an orthopedic spine surgeon at Loyola University Medical Center who has no direct connection with Knox’s situation, offered his assessment of the injury based on what is known generally.

“The final diagnosis indicates a very severe fracture,” Ghanayem said. “Surgical repair involves placements of rods and screws that restrict range of motion and place adjacent vertebrae at higher risk for injury for a patient playing in the high-velocity, high-energy NFL.

“A patient with such an injury could do a typical job. But it would be incredibly difficult to perform with the high degree of flexibility and range of motion required to play professional football.”

In an interview with the Tribune, Hargrove expressed remorse for his hit on Knox. He said there was no malicious intent involved.

“From the start, I just wanted to apologize to him and his family,” Hargrove said. “I didn’t mean to do it. ... I was just trying to recover a football.”

Knox, a fifth-round NFL draft pick in 2009 from Abilene Christian in Texas, started 27 of 45 games over three seasons. He had 133 receptions for 2,214 yards and 12 touchdowns, and his 16.6 yards per reception was seventh best in the NFL during that time. Knox also compiled 1,506 yards on 55 kickoff returns (27.4 yards per return) with one touchdown, earning a Pro Bowl nod as a returner in 2009.

Bears general manager Phil Emery offered his thoughts on Knox in an interview posted on the team’s website.

“Johnny will always be a Bear and he will always be welcome in our practice facility and all of our team events and at games,” Emery said.

Knox’s speed was an asset the Bears could have used last season opposite Brandon Marshall.

“Johnny was a playmaker,” Drake said. “His average per catch was exceptional. He was progressing to become a consistent threat in the league.”

New Bears coach Marc Trestman seems likely to add help at receiver to take some of the load off Marshall, with Knox out of the mix and Devin Hester’s status uncertain.

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