TAMPA, Fla. — Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defensive tackle Vita Vea never gave up hope of returning this season despite a Week 5 ankle fracture.

All twelve. Last week, the global pick of the 2018 draft was activated from an injured reserve. After two days of practice and tryouts last week, he played 32 snaps in the NFC championship game, where the defense took Aaron Rodgers under fire five times.

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Next: Take on Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs during the LV Super Bowl in Tampa at Raymond James Stadium.

I was clearly turned off that night, but I think I said to myself that night: ‘If you hang in there, if you go and rehab, you might have a chance,’ Via said Friday, playing for the first time since his injury in the eighth round. October takes the floor.

They told me I had a small chance of success, so I took what they told me to heart. That’s what I’m holding on to.

He said the injury itself hurt for about 20 seconds, the result of a teammate pulling on his arm. He was still in relatively good spirits, except that he had to get used to the crutches.

I knew I would come back eventually, Via said. I kept thinking to myself: I’ll be back.

Ndamukong Suh, who is involved in the defense, put Vea together with her personal chef to help her maintain a healthy diet and reduce her weight to 347 pounds. He trained with weights six days a week to maintain his strength and endurance. He still attended all line and defensive meetings to focus on the game and have positive thoughts.

The Bucs management office and training staff had not planned on activating him from the casualty pool, but Coach Bruce Arians began to monitor his training. He started walking about four weeks ago. The Arians told him: We will keep winning and you will keep working and it will work out.

It’s always nice to hear that from someone, and of course when a head coach says that, Via said. I think it was our little thing, every time we saw each other, we looked at each other like that: Keep winning, and I’ll be there. And finally, I was able to play last weekend, which was a huge blessing for me.

The Bucs didn’t get Vea in their 27-24 loss against the Chiefs in Week 12, where they struggled to put pressure on Mahomes and missed games in high school. Vea’s size usually forces double teams, giving Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul, who had 3.0 and 2.0 sacks against Rodgers last week, respectively, a chance to make the quarterback.

Vita is a great influence, Mr. Barrett said. We sure missed Vita. On the first kick, the quarterback tried to go where Vita was, but he couldn’t because Vita was standing there and he brought it right to me and that worked out really well. Just because of that, even without the run defense – the run defense is a very important part of it – wherever Vita is, he’s going to get a little bit of slack next to him on both sides, and maybe another slack, so we definitely missed him there.

The Chiefs have had to make significant changes to the offensive line this season. The latest setback was the loss of Eric Fisher’s left tackle due to a torn Achilles tendon in the AFC championship game. They will also likely have to play without right back Mitchell Schwartz, who is still recovering from a back injury, not to mention the loss of left back Kelechi Osemele, who has torn tendons in both knees, and Laurent DuVernay-Tardif and Lucas Niang, who were eliminated this year due to COWID-19 concerns.

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