Kellen Winslow Jr. wasn’t eating.
It wasn’t a fast. There was no religious or political reason for Winslow’s avoidance of sustenance. He might have a Nutri-Grain bar in the morning and maybe unwrap another one or two in the afternoon. But food was an afterthought. Winslow didn’t have time for food. He was too busy riding.
“It wasn’t real healthy,” Winslow said with a laugh. “I just wouldn’t eat until dinner time. But [cycling] was more therapeutic for me than anything. It was therapeutic for my body, my mind. It was just good for me all around.”
Winslow got into cycling five years ago, when he was still playing tight end in the NFL. He fell in love with it for many of the same reasons he fell head over heels for football: It’s competitive, it teaches you about your body, and it pushes you beyond your physical threshold to a place you didn’t know existed.
So Winslow pedaled, racking up mileage and pushing the distance between himself and the NFL. He rode 225 miles a week, sometimes pushing it to 365 when he was feeling extra motivated. He started racing competitively in 2014, winning the first race he entered and placing second in a handful of others.
But Winslow isn’t a cycler, not really. He’s a football player, always has been. It’s in his blood.
His father, Kellen Winslow Sr., is a Hall of Fame tight end, one of the greatest to ever play the position. He passed his abilities on to his son, who became a fiery, outspoken star at the University of Miami. Winslow’s 6-foot-4, 250-pound frame and catching ability made him a revolutionary tight end, a guy who scoffed at the linebackers and safeties who tried to cover him. From 2006 to 2011, Winslow racked up 4,696 receiving yards and 23 touchdowns. In 2007, he made the Pro Bowl as a member of the Cleveland Browns.
But the game and the fates were cruel to him, too. In his second game as a rookie in 2004, he broke his leg, forcing him to miss the rest of the season. The following year, he tore the ACL in his right leg when he crashed his motorcycle in a parking lot, then contracted a staph infection after surgery. From 2009 t0 2013, he bounced around from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the Seattle Seahawks to the New England Patriots, finally ending up in New York.
Winslow played 12 games for the New York Jets in 2013, a season marred by a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug rules. Finally, in early 2014, after being arrested during the off-season for drug possession, he found himself without a team. His phone went silent. Once a source of euphoria, football now felt to Winslow like alcohol poured on a wound. So he got on his bike and pedaled far, far away from it.
“[The NFL] was real hard to watch,” Winslow said. “I had to turn it off because it was too painful to watch. I’d rather watch the Tour de France than football on Sunday. I knew I should be out there, but I wasn’t getting any calls. So I focused on cycling.”
But the further he rode, the greater the NFL’s allure became. Rising in the cycling ranks is as steep a climb as the Col du Tourmalet stage of the Tour de France. You begin as an amateur, making your way from a Category 5 racer to a Category 1 racer, what Winslow describes as an “elite level, but you’re still an amateur.” Once you hit CAT 1, you can move up and become a tour-level racer, or a professional. After a year of competitive racing, Winslow was still just a CAT 4, and thoughts of the NFL haunted him like a helmet-wearing ghost.
“It’s too big of a ladder for me to climb right now,” Winslow said. “Cycling can wait. I’m 32, I’ve been out of the league for two years, and I feel like if one more year went by, that would be it. I have too much talent and too much ability. God gave me so much ability to do what I do and run routes and catch passes. It’s just time to go back and do that.”
Winslow has stopped pedaling. He’s eating more than Nutri-Grain bars again. And with the NFL’s free agency period set to begin March 9, he’s training his body to move like he used to when his Sundays were spent on grass instead of pavement.
The first step in making his NFL comeback a reality was teaching himself to run again. Winslow hadn’t even jogged since 2013, and though his legs might have been stronger than ever from all the riding, he was essentially starting over in terms of moving them in concert on the ground.
“You’ve got to crawl before you walk,” Winslow said. “So I’ve been jogging, working on sprinting. To get there, I’ve been doing the elliptical for about two hours. I do an hour on the elliptical, I’ll jog for about 30 minutes and then go back to the elliptical for an hour. I’m slowly progressing my way to more intensity.”
Besides his crash course on running, Winslow focuses on bodyweight exercises that work his core and hips. He says he doesn’t lift. It has never been something he enjoyed. Instead, he performs Jackknifes and Push-Ups, then jumps rope and executes footwork drills, all functional movements to help his body remember how he used to move on the field.
Once a hulking, 250-pound beast, Winslow dropped to 215 from cycling. He was almost unrecognizable from the person he used to be. He wants to play again at up around 230, a faster, lighter version of his former self.
“I would have to say my stamina is going to be way better than it’s ever been,” he said. “I’m lighter now. I feel like it’s better for my body. I don’t need to be 250 pounds to do my job. I can be around 235 and be able to be faster and feel better, be more fresh.”
Winslow has been chatting with contacts he made during his nine years in the league—coaches, executives, other people with whom he maintained relationships, despite being away from the game for two seasons. And though teams can’t publicly express interest in his services until the free agency period begins, Winslow has never been short on confidence.
“I’m putting in everything I can to come back,” he said. “I’m putting in my life’s work in 2016. I’m prepared to lead the league in receptions and yards. That’s how hard I’m working. If you put me with the right team and the right quarterback, I’m going to lead the league in receptions and yards. That’s how confident I am. That’s what these hours are for.”
The question remains: Why? If Winslow fell so deeply in love with cycling, why spurn it for the ex who treated him so badly at times.
“You can cycle until you’re 60 or 70 years old,” Winslow said. “You can’t do that with football. You get that window, and you only have so many years. It’s time for me to go back.”
Maybe cycling was just a rebound shot, something to fill the void inside until it no longer consumes your every waking moment. Maybe instead of pedaling away from the NFL, Winslow just needed time to figure out how to ride toward it in a different way. His climb is almost over now, and Winslow sounds more infatuated with the game than he ever has before.
“I’m going to come back,” he said. “I really believe I’m going to. I don’t know why, but I believe I’m going to do it.”