The first time Ronnie Stanley walked with Gabby Reece, he was still learning how to even do that simple task again. The Ravens left tackle was in Malibu, California, last spring, rehabilitating his surgically repaired left ankle, when Reece told him she was headed over to nearby Zuma Beach with her husband. Stanley, whom the couple had just started training, asked whether he could tag along.

This would not be a normal walk on the beach, and not because Stanley still had surgical screws in his foot. They would be walking backwards: Stanley, the All-Pro offensive lineman who’d played just seven games over his past two seasons; Reece, the former professional volleyball player, model and actress; and Laird Hamilton, the famous big-wave surfer with whom Reece had founded the Extreme Performance Training program.

Reverse walking, used in physical therapy to improve gait and mobility, was difficult for Stanley, Reece recalled. He had limited range of motion in his left foot; even his big toe felt off. To step backward, Stanley had to lead with his toes into the sand, then roll back onto the ball of his foot, then plant his heel.

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As the three of them walked along the beach, Reece started to worry; there were children playing near the shore, and Stanley was a big guy. What if he stepped on a plastic toy bucket or bumped into some kid? Even as Stanley walked backward, Reece recalled, he wasn’t looking back.

“Some simple things, like walking, you just kind of feel like you should just know how to do it, and it should always be the same,” Stanley said in an interview Friday. “But it took a lot of time for that to feel normal again.”

Stanley, sitting on a leather chair inside the Ravens’ team facility in Owings Mills, looked around. He’d just finished a walk-through for Sunday’s AFC wild-card-round game against the Cincinnati Bengals. This was “where I wanted to be,” Stanley said. “Just healthy.”

Healthy enough to play, to start at left tackle for the sixth-seeded Ravens, to allow just one sack over nearly 300 pass-blocking snaps this season, according to Pro Football Focus.

“I just knew that’s what I had to do,” Stanley said, but learning how had been the hard part. Before he could return to the sport he loved, he’d had to find help. And before he could find help, he’d had to learn to listen to his body.

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Ravens left tackle Ronnie Stanley works out at Proactive Sports Performance in California during the 2022 offseason. (Emma Sharon/Proactive Sports Performance)

Stanley played only 68 offensive snaps last season, none of them comfortably. After suffering a season-ending ankle injury in November 2020 — he was carted off the field after Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt rolled into the back of his leg — Stanley set a goal of returning in time for the Ravens’ 2021 season opener.

That was a mistake, he said. His ankle was still in pain when the Ravens traveled to Las Vegas, his hometown, for a “Monday Night Football” showdown against the Raiders. He’d let the team’s schedule dictate his own timetable.

“It was probably just more of a prideful thing,” he said. He acknowledged Friday that he hadn’t thought enough about the “actual injury itself, or how it was actually feeling.” Stanley, who struggled in the overtime loss, didn’t play or practice again that season. In October 2021, his ankle underwent a second major operation in 11 months.

Ahead of another rehab, Stanley at least knew what to expect. He knew he needed to be “more creative” in how he prepared his body for the grind of an NFL season. Even those first few post-op months, when he felt like he had “a whole different foot,” couldn’t be wasted.

In California, Stanley found a support system. He enlisted the help of Kobe Bryant’s longtime neuromuscular physical therapist, Barrence Baytos, who worked to break up the scar tissue and strengthen the soft tissue in Stanley’s damaged foot.

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Through Baytos, Stanley connected with Reece and Hamilton, who might as well have been a boogie-boarder. “Everybody kind of looked at me crazy because I didn’t know who he was,” Stanley said of Hamilton, who, in 2000, on the Teahupo’o surf break in Tahiti, came down what became known as the “heaviest” wave ever ridden. “But I think he kind of respected it because he doesn’t really care about football.”

Hamilton could also appreciate the complexity of Stanley’s rehab, having broken the arch in his feet, according to Reece, about a half-dozen times while surfing. What made Stanley unique — his 6-foot-6, 300-plus-pound frame — was also what put his ankle at risk. He had to be better protected.

“It’s so complicated and it’s completely load-bearing,” Reece said. “You can never get off of it. So that in itself makes ankles so tricky. Now you want to add, ‘I’m a big guy who’s supposed to stop you coming forward at full force. You’re a big guy. You’re a strong guy. And I have to also be nimble on my feet.’ So I think you and I couldn’t imagine what that is like.”

Ravens left tackle Ronnie Stanley works out at Proactive Sports Performance in California during the 2022 offseason. (Emma Sharon/Proactive Sports Performance)

For a while, Stanley couldn’t feel the ground beneath his left foot. Even as his rehab progressed, even as some flexion returned with the screws removed, walking never felt normal.

That was to be expected, Tommy Andre assured him. “It’s going to feel shitty because you have this new ankle,” said Andre, the director of physical therapy at Proactive Sports Performance, where Stanley also trained.

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From their sessions together, Andre came to understand the football timelines that awaited Stanley back in Maryland: minicamp, preseason, the season opener, et cetera. Andre was more concerned with how Stanley felt when he got up in the morning. If Stanley’s heel hurt, he wanted to know. Real progress wouldn’t be possible without honesty and accountability; Andre called Stanley’s gait a “vital sign,” as if it were as important as a heartbeat.

“We know what gait should look like and what it should feel like, and most [patients] don’t move like that,” said Andre, noting some of the inefficient movements he’s addressed with clients. “And them not moving like that tells you so much [about the body]. ...

“Relearning how to walk, it’s not a simplification, but it’s much more than that. It’s, ‘OK, I’ve got to give him the tools to learn how to walk.’ It’s not just, ‘OK, walk. Pick up your feet.’ ”

Stanley could grasp the basics of walking — heel to toe, heel to toe — but an appreciation for what he’d lost arrived amid the biomechanical minutiae. Intuitive instincts had to be rewired. When making explosive movements, for instance, he said he had to train himself to push through his big toe.

“A lot of the athletes in general, they do incredible things with their bodies,” Andre said, “and they do it not necessarily with the foundation I think we all would think they would have.”

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Ravens left tackle Ronnie Stanley runs sand dunes in California during the 2022 offseason. (Emma Sharon/Proactive Sports Performance)

Stanley wanted a better foundation. Over their months together, Reece recalled being struck as much by his intensity as by his curiosity. It wasn’t enough to go from walking to running to jumping, clearing checkpoint after checkpoint at Proactive and XPT. What if there were more out there?

Stanley started to do Pilates and yoga. He took up hypoxic training, swimming for periods with little to no breathing to enhance his physical and cognitive functions. One day at XPT, he even found himself grappling with Royce Gracie, who popularized Brazilian jiu-jitsu and became one of the most important figures in the history of mixed martial arts. The way Gracie talked about body positioning and technique resonated with Stanley, who asked to learn more.

“It was all different parts of the puzzle,” Stanley said of his diverse workout portfolio, “and they were all very important.”

By mid-July, weeks before training camp opened, Stanley was healthy enough to run Malibu’s Sandy Dune alongside Proactive’s roster of other NFL clients, including Ravens defensive lineman Calais Campbell and then-Steelers wide receiver Chase Claypool.

The dune, nestled along the Pacific Coast Highway, is “intense,” said Ryan Capretta, Proactive’s founder and CEO, with some inclines as steep as 30 degrees. The workout was maybe the closest approximation of the rigors of a football game that Stanley had gotten in months, full of sprints, backpedals and jumps. As he measured himself against the other pros, Stanley said he knew he was “on the right track.”

“I think all the special ones, they have that mentality, no matter where they’re at in the stage of their career or coming out of an injury,” Capretta said. “Rehabbing from surgery, they have that confidence in themselves. And obviously, everybody has good and bad days. But ultimately, the unwavering belief in yourself that you’re going to get back to who you were — Ronnie was very, very good with that.”

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Alex Highsmith (56) in action against Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2023, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Terrance Williams) (Terrance Williams/AP)

When the Ravens’ season kicked off in mid-September, Stanley was practicing but not playing. He wasn’t activated in Week 2, either, or Week 3, or Week 4. Fullback Patrick Ricard said coaches and teammates wondered aloud when he’d be back.

Stanley joked that he “pretty much looked like a normal human.” He knew he looked fine moving around the field. But he felt the job demanded so much more of him athletically. He had to anchor against bull-rushing defensive ends and down-block 330-pound defensive linemen, and he had to do it snap after snap, week after week, after not having done so with any regularity for nearly two years.

Stanley had spent the offseason fixing his ankle, aspiring for biomechanical efficiency. Playing football meant exposing that ankle to unnatural movements. “You’re asking ligaments and tendons and bones that aren’t really designed to do that,” Andre said, “but they have to.”

“I think that’s the message I was trying to convey to everyone else,” Stanley said. “I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to do the things that I needed to do to play my position. I had to communicate that to lots of different people so that they have an understanding of ‘I’m not just there yet, to where I need to be.’

“I know it might look like everything’s normal. I can run straight. But when it comes to anchoring at an ankle on your left side, it’s a whole different ballgame for 70 plays a game or whatever the case may be.”

Stanley made his long-awaited debut in Week 5, playing 22 offensive snaps and keeping Bengals star defensive end Trey Hendrickson at bay in a prime-time win. By Week 9, he was playing all 68 snaps in a win over the New Orleans Saints.

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Maybe the greatest affirmation of Stanley’s rehab, though, came after he hurt his ankle in a Week 11 win over the Carolina Panthers. Stanley missed two weeks, then returned to play every snap in a Week 14 win in Pittsburgh. He acknowledged afterward that he’d found himself thinking about his 2020 injury during the game, his first against the Ravens’ AFC North rival since he was carted off two years earlier.

“Ronnie has been diligent, determined,” coach John Harbaugh said Friday. “It’s not an easy thing over a long period of time like that to come back from something that serious. Then, to do it in a way that he’s playing at the level he is, I admire him. I have a lot of respect for him. I think he’s done a great job. I’m very, very grateful that he’s on our team.”

When the Ravens’ season ends, Stanley’s work will continue. There are weaknesses he wants to address, like his ability to drive off his left big toe, and few moments to waste. Early in Stanley’s career, former Chicago Bears All-Pro center Olin Kreutz, a good friend, told him that the offseason was no time to rest.

That advice has stuck with him, ringing in his ears even now, as he puts one good foot in front of the other.

“God willing, I’ll stay healthy and come out of this season, hopefully, with a Super Bowl,” Stanley said. “And I can build on that, what I’ve built on these past couple of years, coming back from multiple surgeries, to be able to progress from that — and hopefully look like nothing ever happened.”