It was hard for E.J. Gaines not to leap to the worst possible conclusion when his knee gave out mid-play during a training camp practice earlier this summer.
The Browns veteran cornerback crumpled to the ground in pain and received an ovation while the team's training staff carted him off the field and back into the locker room.
Gaines, however, has been through — and overcome — adversity before. After missing the 2015 season with a Lisfranc injury, he drew strength from that experience and went into the unknown buoyed by a positive outlook.
"I was like, as long as my knee isn't as bad as that I'll be good to come back," Gaines said earlier this week. "I was just making sure I was healthy when I came back on the field and I felt good."
Then, the MRI came back. What initially appeared to be a serious injury was ultimately a knee sprain. Gaines, having already overcome a more significant setback three years ago, knew he could handle this one.
Less than three weeks later, he returned to practice and slowly worked his way back onto a defense that's now counting on him to replace an injured Terrance Mitchell, who needed surgery last week to repair a broken wrist.
Gaines, who made his first start in Sunday's win over the Ravens since signing with Cleveland in free agency, made an immediate impact with four tackles and two crucial pass breakups.
"It was exciting first off just to get back out there," he said. "It'd been a few weeks with the injury and everything so it was exciting to get back out there and more exciting to get the win with my teammates."
"E.J. is a quality player in this league. He knows how to play," coach Hue Jackson added. "I thought he would come out and represent himself well and our team well. This past weekend, he did so. He has to do it again. He has to keep playing well for us."
Before that, though, Gaines had to get his knee right. He worked with the Browns training staff day in and day out to get back on the field, going through three rehab sessions a day. "It's just a grind, just trying to stay conditioned because you're not getting as much work on the field so it's definitely tough," he said, "but the guys here definitely did a great job and I'm just excited to get back."
The Browns are equally excited to have Gaines back. The veteran made 36 starts with the Rams and Buffalo Bills before coming to Cleveland, and it shows on Sundays.
And Gaines' resolve to return to the field as soon as possible, Jackson said, didn't go unnoticed.
"I think that was important that he got through it as fast as he could because the team needed him back. You can't ever have too many good corners – I think we all know that – in this league," he said.
"Normally, it has been the soft tissue injuries that have taken these guys out. You always feel like there is going to be a chance that somebody is not going to make it all the way through. Unfortunately, it happened with Mitch, but we have a quality guy in E.J. Gaines that we can put out there, and he has done well."