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In return to field, Sanders overcomes not just Achilles injury, but 'tightrope' surgery to other ankle

Broncos' No. 1 receiver wanted comeback complete before revealing second ankle surgery.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The resiliency of Emmanuel Sanders is greater than Bronco followers might have thought.

It was impressive enough that Sanders, the Broncos’ No. 1 receiver, now appears all the way back from the Achilles surgery he underwent in December.

Now here’s the kicker to his story, using his other foot: Sanders also had what is known as “tightrope” surgery on his right ankle that had been bothering him for two seasons.

The “tightrope” procedure did wonders while enabling Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to play in the NCAA national championship game last season just four weeks after he suffered a severe high ankle sprain. Sanders also swears by the procedure, although immediate pain precedes the remarkable swift gain in recovery.

“The tightrope was more painful the Achilles (surgery),’’ Sanders said.

Ever try to get around coming off surgeries to both ankles? In February, Sanders “literally had  to crawl up stairs.’’

From hands and knees one step at a time six months ago to catching a deep ball down the right sidelines from Joe Flacco during the Broncos’ training camp practice Monday.

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“I thought he would make it back quicker than most and he has,’’ said Broncos head coach Vic Fangio. “He looks fine. I’ve asked the guys that have been here in the past to compare him to what he’s been … and they don’t see any difference right now.”

Sanders has been working back into football shape a little more each day during the Broncos’ training camp until he participated in all the 11-on-11 team periods Monday. The comeback will be complete next Monday night when Sanders expects to play in the Broncos’ preseason game against the San Francisco 49ers.

You knew about the Achilles injury. That happened during a practice last December as the Broncos were coming off their third consecutive victory and getting ready to play Game 13 at San Francisco. Sanders missed the final four games and the Broncos lost all four.

What Sanders didn’t want revealed until he was fully ready to play again was the second surgery to his other  ankle. He talked exclusively with 9News about his right ankle repair following practice Monday.

The right ankle injury, Broncos fans might recall, occurred as he was whacked while running a pattern across the middle in Game 5 of the 2017 season against the New York Giants. Sanders missed the next two games, played hurt for a couple more months and then sat out the final two games as the Broncos fell completely out of playoff contention.

He had the ankle massaged, iced, treated and rehabilitated over the offseason but it still didn’t feel right going into 2018.

“My (right) ankle gave me problems all last year,’’ he said. “I came to camp last year thinking, “How to hell am I going to get through this season?’’

He battled and got off to a terrific start, catching 10 passes for 135 yards in the Broncos’ season-opening win against Seattle.  He reached the halfway point of last season with 50 catches and 660 yards – a pace of 100 and 1,320.

But after fellow receiver Demaryius Thomas was traded away Sanders received increased attention from secondaries. And his ankle wasn’t getting any better.

“I feel like that was kind of the reason I tore my Achilles,’’ Sanders said.

Compensating for one injury does often lead to another.

The same surgeon who repaired Sanders’ left Achilles in December also repaired his right ankle a month later. The “tightrope,” according to multiple medical journal reports, involves drilling holes into the tibia and fibula at the ankle then using a heavy non-absorbable suture with metal buttons at both ends to hold the bones close together.

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Somehow, this procedure is famous for its quicker-than-usual recoveries from high-ankle sprains. Even if it’s not immediately apparent.

“There was a point where I was wheeling around on a bike, and I’m pushing off on my Achilles ankle,’’ Sanders said.

Balancing the recovery of one leg with that of another has its challenges, but now Sanders is 32 and practicing like he’s 27, 28 and 29 when he had three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons for the Broncos while averaging 85 catches.

Credit Broncos general manager John Elway for not panicking. He didn’t release Sanders despite his double-ankle surgeries and $10 million-plus salary. He didn’t sign an expensive free agent with above-average receiver production. Elway believed not only in Sanders’ return to health, but return to form.

During Sanders gradual comeback, the Broncos’ offense has had more pop in its passing game whenever he’s been in for 11-on-11 periods. Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick are big receivers. But Sanders brings energy, quickness and big-play hands to the offense.

“I feel good now that both of them have been taken care of,’’ he said. “I feel like I’m back to myself, finally.’’

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