The first two weeks after the surgery were the worst, the pain so crippling, so unceasing, that Nyheim Hines couldn’t even imagine climbing from bed.
The mere thought of ordering takeout made him cringe — that would require hobbling all the way to the front door of his apartment to pick it up. No thanks. Not happening. On rides to rehab, he’d grip the armrests in the backseat, bracing for any bump in the road, fearing that even the smallest ones would cause his knee to throb. At the hospital, when doctors would ask him to straighten his leg, he’d want to shake his head and refuse, convinced the stitches were going to rip open right then and there.
“Honestly, there were times I just wanted to scream and cry,” Hines told The Athletic, speaking about his last several months for the first time publicly. “It was just rehab, man, but it was hard as hell.”
This wasn’t supposed to be what August looked like for Hines, the shifty sixth-year running back and special teams standout for the Buffalo Bills. He was supposed to be helping a contender prepare for a Super Bowl run.
After the November 2022 trade from the Colts, after his two touchdown returns brought the house down in Orchard Park in the regular season finale — six days after teammate Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest on the field in Cincinnati — and after an expanded role in offseason practices, Hines was starting to feel a part of something special in Buffalo.
He spent last season studying the playbook for two hours each night; now he knew it cold, scoring 100s on the quizzes the coaches passed out. He no longer needed his position coach, Kelly Skipper, to translate the play calls from what his old coaches called them in Indianapolis. He saw his reps growing in practice. In Hines’ mind, 2023 was going to be the breakout season he’d been chasing since he first entered the league.
Then, two days before the Fourth of July, he hopped on a Sea-Doo and lost a year of his prime.
The most devastating part?
All he was doing, Hines insists, was filling it up with gas. The ride was a few minutes, max.
It wasn’t the accident but the surgery that would leave Hines with what he calls “two weeks of the worst pain I’ve ever experienced in my life.” Meanwhile, he found himself in a brief but bitter contract dispute with the Bills.
“You know what I tell people?” Hines says, going back to that day. “I literally tell people my life is like that movie ‘Final Destination.’”
He hadn’t been on the Sea-Doos at all that day. In fact, he hadn’t been on them once all weekend.
Hines prefers wake-surfing, coasting between the waves just behind the boat, and that’s what he’d been doing for the better part of two hours on July 2. He’d rented a house with some friends on Lake Norman, just north of Charlotte, and was fine letting everyone else zip around the water on the Sea-Doos. He had training camp starting in a matter of weeks.
But after a while, the Sea-Doos running low on fuel, Hines figured he’d hop on one and fill it up with gas. He was the only professional athlete of the group, the one with the $9 million contract, and he wanted to help.
“People were saying the gas was low,” he remembers, “and I was being a good dude. I said, ‘All right, I’ll just get on one of them and pay.’”
After Hines filled up the tank at the marina, he started driving the Sea-Doo back to the house, intent on getting back on the boat. According to the accident report from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, Hines stopped in a no-wake zone behind a row of boats. He didn’t get far. A boat was coming in his direction, so he tried to avoid it.
“I tried to move to the right of the boat,” Hines told the police that day, according to the accident report. “As I moved to the right, I was hit.”
Another Sea-Doo slammed into his right side, hurling Hines into the water.
Per the report, it was Dylan Peebles, a close friend and former college track and field teammate of Hines at North Carolina State, driving the other Sea-Doo. Peebles was later charged with careless and reckless operation and for not having the proper boating safety requirements.
“I was driving straight and didn’t see a boat in front,” Peebles told the police, per the report. “Then my friend saw it and turned and I hit him while he turned. He was going slow (and) I was going 20 mph.”
Peebles was traveling between 20 and 40 miles an hour, per the report, and the combined damage of the two Sea-Doos was an estimated $17,000. Within two months of the accident, Hines hired an attorney to explore his legal options.
“I think the facts here are what they are,” said Brad Sohn, who’s representing Hines. “No. 1, there’s absolutely nothing to suggest that Nyheim did anything wrong here at all. And your heart goes out to anyone that works as hard as he does to be the player he is in the NFL.”
Both Hines and Sohn declined to further discuss the specifics of the accident, citing impending litigation.
Even in the days after the incident, Hines didn’t think he’d suffered a serious injury, certainly nothing that would cost him any time on the football field. Both knees were a little sore. He iced them that night.
Four or five days later, Hines says, he headed to a nearby track for a workout. When he started to jog, his left knee ached. “Weird,” he told himself. “I was hit on my right side.”
Something was off. He called his agent, who set up an MRI.
The results were heartbreaking. Hines learned he’d torn the ACL and LCL in his left knee. His season was over before it ever began.
Hines knows what everyone had to be thinking the minute the news broke in late July: NFL player hurt in jet ski accident, out for the season.
He was probably messing around. Being reckless. Being immature.
“It’s a terrible look, and that’s been real hard,” he says. “The opportunity I had (this season), and truthfully, not even screwing around on the jet skis. If I was doing jumps or being stupid, I wouldn’t even be really upset (about this). But it’s the fact that I literally wasn’t even riding the jet skis. I was just getting gas.”
The lesson has been hard to swallow. Hines is devoted to his body during the season, religious when it comes to his routine — needle therapy, hours in NormaTec compression boots, nightly massages, Epsom salt baths. Before the accident, he’d only missed one game in his five-year NFL career, and he says he’s only missed six dating back to middle school. He once went a three-year stretch in Indianapolis without missing a single practice, ridiculously rare durability for a running back.
All the work he’s put in since he entered the league, the aim being to prolong his prime as long as possible, and then this happens: a freak, untimely accident with grave consequences, one that cost him an entire season and threatened his career.
“It’s something I’ll grow from,” Hines says. “I wasn’t doing anything wrong, but I can’t control everything around me … that’s a position I won’t put myself in, at least until I’m done playing.”
Hines’ surgery was performed by Dr. Neal ElAttrache in Los Angeles on Aug. 8; rehab began two days later. The first few weeks were utter agony: It hurt to sleep, hurt to move, hurt to do anything. Slowly, he’s made progress. “I’m past the worst of it,” he says, “but Lord have mercy, the worst was terrible.”
The Bills, unsurprisingly, were not thrilled upon getting word of the accident. Back in the spring, as offseason workouts were finishing up, since-fired offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey had made it clear to general manager Brandon Beane how excited he was to open up more of the playbook to Hines in 2023. It’s what Beane envisioned when he made the deal with the Colts last year, calling Hines a minute before the trade deadline and asking him, “We’re happy to have you, can you be on a flight in three hours?”
The disappointment was evident when Beane met with reporters on the eve of training camp.
“It’s not like I can go out and find another Nyheim Hines,” he said.
Hines had renegotiated his deal with the Bills before the season, landing on a two-year agreement for $9 million through 2024, spreading some incentives — a signing bonus, workout bonuses — out over time. But since the accident occurred away from the team facility, the Bills placed him on the NFI list, which technically doesn’t require the team to pay him anything.
Suddenly, Hines was out millions of dollars.
After months of back-and-forth, the two sides agreed on a smaller sum with which both were comfortable.
“We were both upset, both parties were upset,” Hines says. “I didn’t expect for that to happen. They didn’t expect for this to happen. We both had big plans for myself. And they know I hold myself accountable, and they knew that this is gonna kill me more than it kills them.”
The matter resolved, a sobering lesson learned, Hines expects to pick up where he left off in Buffalo next year.
“They treated me right at the end of the day and they took care of it,” he says, “and I’m a member of the Buffalo Bills and I look forward to coming back there next year and earning the right to win.”
He misses it, all of it, even those long, hard, grueling Wednesday practices in the bitter cold, the ones he used to loathe.
“I’ll never take a Wednesday practice for granted again,” Hines says.
He watches the Bills on “NFL Sunday Ticket.” He goes to rehab. He plays the guitar three hours a day, is working to get his real estate license and is taking online classes at North Carolina State, where he’s a few hours away from earning his bachelor’s degree.
“I never took football for granted, truly, but after this, I know what this game means to me,” Hines says. “I’d do anything to be back right now.”
The Bills could use him. A trendy Super Bowl pick before the season, the Bills are just 6-5, currently outside the AFC playoff picture. After a two-game skid earlier this month, Dorsey was fired.
One thing Hines has pledged to himself: He’s not getting on another Sea-Doo, and he’s not wake-surfing, until his NFL career is over, full stop.
“I don’t wanna say it was bad luck, because I don’t really believe in luck, but hopefully the Lord’s just trying to prepare me for something, because it’s been hard,” Hines says. “I know I’m not going to forget what I went through, especially the pain.
“This will be a heck of a story when it’s over, I’m gonna make sure of it.”
(Illustration: Samuel Richardson / The Athletic; photos: Nic Antaya and Bryan M. Bennett / Getty Images)