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Kam Curl returns to practice, giving a boost to the Commanders’ defense

Commanders safety Kam Curl missed the season's first two games. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Before the first two Washington Commanders games this year, safety Kam Curl stood on the sideline during warmups as pads popped, seats filled and senses heightened. The electric atmosphere makes football one of his favorite things in the world.

But for the first time in his life, he said, injuries have forced him to sit out. Instead of pads, he has worn a sweatshirt, sweatpants and a cast on his right thumb, which supports the ligament he tore during the preseason. He has hated it.

“I don’t like ever being on the sideline,” he said. “I’m supposed to be on the field.”

In 17 years of football, Curl has played through plenty of pain — sprained shoulders, sore hips, jammed fingers. But he has only missed games because of illness (once at Arkansas, once in the NFL) and suspension (one game for flirting with Mississippi State’s cheerleaders while in college). Curl’s father, Greg, said that in eighth grade, his son broke his shoulder — but it was on the last play of the season, so he never had to stand on the sideline in a brace or cast and grapple with the physical limitations of his body.

In the past month, Curl said, there has been “a little tug-of-war” with those closest to him. Family, teammates, coaches and his agent urged him to be smart, patient and positive. But it has been difficult; not only does he want to be on the field now, but it’s also maddening to think something as small as a thumb could keep him away.

“It makes me feel not tough because I’m not playing,” he said the day after the season opener. “But you just got to be smart. It’s just a mind thing.”

In the locker room Wednesday, Curl was beaming. He had been medically cleared to practice, and for the first time in a month, he didn’t run from the stretch line to the side field for workouts with the other injured players. He went to the defensive backs’ drills to catch passes, simulate tackles and joke with his teammates. Afterward, he simply said, “I missed it.”

If Curl can play Sunday — “I’m going to play Sunday,” he said — he would be a big boost to a defense reeling from missed assignments and explosive plays. He’ll probably still have to wear a small, black cast over his thumb, but at 6-foot-2 and 198 pounds, he’s a cerebral Swiss Army knife capable of covering the opponent’s biggest matchup nightmare and toggling among free safety, strong safety and slot cornerback in the big nickel subpackage. He could prove invaluable Sunday as Washington tries to limit Philadelphia’s mobile quarterback, Jalen Hurts, and tight end Dallas Goedert.

“Being able to mix and match [against matchup problems], it creates value for yourself — and he is very valuable to this defense,” defensive backs coach Chris Harris said.

“There’s a familiarity with Kam’s play,” Coach Ron Rivera added. “He’s a guy that can give you a little bit of presence in the box as well, a little bit more than the other safeties. He’s a nice-sized body, very physical football player, very smart football player, very heads-up guy, communicates very well out there, too. It’ll be very nice to have him back on the field for us.”

Kam Curl, cerebral and steady, has become an integral part of Washington’s defense

After Curl hurt his thumb in the second preseason game at Kansas City, he tried to treat it as he had past injuries. He practiced, thinking it wouldn’t prevent him from running or tackling, but the pain was severe, and eventually he walked off the field and went for an exam. He learned a ligament was torn, and for the first time, he needed surgery.

Two weeks later, his family came to Washington for the home opener. Greg Curl could tell his son was down, and he told him about someone he had seen suffer the same injury when he was in the Navy. The sailor had been dehydrated, and when doctors struggled to find a vein through which to give him an IV, they inserted the needle between his thumb and index finger and accidentally tore a ligament. The man lost use of his thumb for about a year, Greg Curl said, and he asked his son to think about his future.

“I was just letting him know how serious it was,” Greg Curl said. “Imagine going through life — you’re trying to pick up a water bottle and your thumb don’t latch on. He was thinking, like, ‘Man, that’s crazy.’ ”

Every day, Curl drives to the facility with practice squad linebacker De’Jon “Scoota” Harris, his teammate and close friend from Arkansas who is now his roommate. Harris said Curl stayed mostly positive while rehabbing, and Harris could relate. In high school, Harris said, a fellow linebacker accidentally hit him in the knee while making a tackle. He sprained his MCL and missed one game — but even one game hurt.

Harris added that for someone like Curl, who has played high-contact positions since he started playing the game as a running back at 6 years old, a mostly injury-free history is remarkable. He suggested it was a result of some combination of skill, luck and genetics.

“Whatever it is, it’s in his favor,” he added.

On Wednesday, Curl said returning to practice felt like a weight had been lifted off him. He was excited to return to the drills that once felt tedious during training camp, and the camaraderie of his teammates and the energy of game-planning for an opponent brought him one step closer to the electricity of game day.