Bucs coach Bruce Arians and Vita Vea had a pact, and they reinforced it each time they saw each other.
"That was like our little thing to each other," Vea said on Friday. " ‘If you keep winning, I’ll show up.’ "
"I showed up."
The defensive tackle certainly did. After missing most of the season with a fractured ankle, he was activated off injured reserve just before the NFC Championship Game and, after only two practices, played 33 snaps at defensive tackle in the Buccaneers’ win. His ability to clog the middle was a big part of the team’s five sacks against Aaron Rodgers.
He’ll be on the field next Sunday in Super Bowl LV against Kansas City, too. That’s something that seemed almost impossible when he suffered the gruesome injury on Oct. 8. At first he believed it was just a high ankle sprain before X-rays told a very different story.
"Obviously, I was down and out that night, but I think that night I told myself, 'If you just push through this, push through rehab, you might have a chance,' " Vea said. "They told me I might have a small chance of making it, so I took those chances of what they said, and I really took it to heart. That's what I stuck with."
Of course the Bucs had to do their part, too. So while Vea was attending meetings and trying to keep up his strength and stamina in the weight room and even enlisting the personal nutritionist of teammate Ndamukong Suh — a Suh chef? — to keep his weight "down" to his already enormous playing size of 347 pounds, had the team not made it to the postseason or been bounced in the first two rounds, none of it would have mattered. His return would have had to wait until September.
About a month ago, when Vea was able to start running on the side as the Bucs were coming together on the field, it became much more realistic that their paths could converge on a deep postseason push this season. That’s when Arians first told Vea that the team would keep winning and that he should keep working, and Vea responded with his part of the deal about showing up.
"That's always uplifting when you hear someone say that to you, and obviously when the head coach says that to you," Vea said. "I knew at the end of the day, I'd be back."