Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images
Kentavius Street’s NFL career has not gone according to script. A torn ACL in his first training camp and complications with that recovery placed the wait between his last college game at NC State to his first in the NFL at 716 days—two weeks shy of two full years.
He finally saw NFL action at the end of last season when he was activated off injured reserve and played out the final three regular season games.
Then it happened again. Another knee injury in January prevented Street from enjoying his first playoff appearance, and necessitated a third surgery in two years, a “patellar tendon” cleanup at the Andrews Institute in Pensacola, Florida in February—the same place Dee Ford underwent an “extensive” knee cleanup this offseason.
Roughly seven months later, Street is truly healthy for the first time in his young, yet seasoned NFL career. He’s rekindled his optimism and displayed it in head-turning fashion, employing the domineering physical talent and sharpened technique which once—and now, again—made him such a tantalizing part of the 49ers’ defensive line.
The path Street’s driven to this point has been one of boulder-sized cobblestones. He said Monday he was sometimes overwhelmed by a sense of doubt that maybe he would never find his health again.
“Just being brutally honest, I was really starting to doubt myself if I would ever get back to 100 percent,” Street said. “I had a lot of days where I just didn’t feel like a pro athlete, days where I was just out of it. I kind of let the injury get to me. I kind of let it just take over who I was as a person. And my girlfriend, [Taylor], she did a great job just keeping me up the days where I was down, (and) my family, my mom. I’m truly a product of the great people that I have around me, and without them, I truly wouldn’t have gotten through this process.”
Those seven months between Street’s surgery and now were defined by a concerted offseason effort to rediscover the healthy version of himself. Street remained at the Andrews Institute through April, he said, before heading down to Charlotte, North Carolina in June, where he and Ronald Blair III, who was rehabbing from an ACL tear, began working with Dr. Leon Knight, a performance-oriented physical therapist who runs Movement Solutions.
In a phone conversation, Knight told KNBR he was initially struck by what Street said were his goals for the season.
“I’ll never forget this,” Knight said. “He said, ‘I just want to be healthy.’ He said, ‘Because if I’m healthy, the rest will take care of itself.’ That really resonated with me because you have some people that come in and say, ‘Hey, this year I want to get a certain amount of sacks or a certain amount of tackles, a certain amount of deflections.’ But he has been stripped of the ability of just being able to play. So his goal was simple, which a lot of people, a lot of athletes that are healthy take for granted, which is just to be able to play.”
Knight said he began the program with Street by prioritizing and promoting leg strength and comfortability. Once he saw Street didn’t have any knee pain for the first few weeks, Street, along with Blair, began working on sport-specific movements and drills. Knight coordinated with 49ers head athletic trainer Dustin Little and assistant physical therapist and athletic trainer Michael Sola in order to understand what the conditioning and strength program would be like when they returned to Santa Clara.
“I wanted him to be able to incorporate those things before he got to training camp so it wasn’t a shocker and there wasn’t apprehension once he got there,” Knight said.
That pursuit of health from a basics-first approach bore fruit. Street said that while he was initially hesitant putting pads back on, he “was able to push myself harder than I thought” early on in camp. As he began to shed blocks with consistent violence in one-on-ones and from multiple positions (nose, 3-technique, 5-technique), it not only became clear that Street had a safe spot on the roster, but that he was establishing himself as a crucial member of a defensive line group which had lost Super Bowl starters DeForest Buckner and Sheldon Day on interior.
Street credited that time with Knight as building within in him the confidence he’d lost.
“He put me through so many things mimicking football and doing all the drills that [defensive line coach] Kris [Kocurek] puts us through,” Street said. “I really gained confidence going into camp. I still had the hesitation just being in pads and having other bodies flying around, but I was very mentally prepared going into it.”
His cohorts have been effusive in their praise. D.J. Jones singled him out last week as having taken a unique, monumental leap this offseason.
“Street, man, he’s taken a step that nobody else in the room has taken,” Jones said. “And if he keeps going, there’s no ceiling.”
Solomon Thomas noted that the amended health and performance has allowed Street, a very humble, even-keeled guy, to reveal more of his personality in the locker room.
“Personally, I don’t have any expectations for myself,” Street said. “I just want to go out there and play as fast as I can. Kris [Kocurek] has been really hard on me, just telling me, ‘Don’t go there and be too hard on yourself. Just play as fast as you can and be the player you’ve been in camp,’ and good things will happen for me. So that’s my exact mindset going into it.”
When the 53-man roster was announced Saturday, Knight reached out to Street and the pair exchanged texts.
“It means a lot from a personal standpoint, not even a professional standpoint, to see someone who has such great talent and ability to actually be able to show it, because he’s healthy,” Knight said. “I’m just happy for the guy.”