TAMPA, Fla. – When they told him he had torn his ACL, Darrelle Revis cried.
These were not tears of despair, borne out of the fear of never being the same again. They were tears of relief, from the realization that he would get a second chance.
It's been nearly a year since Revis, then with the Jets, crumpled to the ground in Week 3 against the Dolphins. As he limped off the field, he had no idea what was wrong. His mind went to the worst of places: maybe he blew out his knee. Maybe, after six years living his dream in the NFL, he was done.
The diagnosis of a torn anterior cruciate ligament sent a shudder through the football world, but it was a wave of reassurance to Revis himself. He would come all the way back.
And on Thursday, after a fitful night of non-sleep, he returned to the chalked-off rectangle where he always expected to be.
He was greeted by a new nickname from his new Tampa Bay teammates: Grandpa.
Revis heard that with a mix of amusement and disbelief: "Wait, it's only my seventh year in the league!" he protested.
And it's true. The conversation around Revis has hinged on the question of whether he can be his old All-Pro self again. Well, what if he can be even better than his old All-Pro self? If there were no injury, he'd be in the prime of his career at age 28. It's not as if his prime has expired because of an injury.
Something to consider: Adrian Peterson surprised the football world last season by coming back better than ever after an ACL and MCL tear in 2011. He's expected to challenge Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record this year.
Revis is four months younger than Peterson.
The star cornerback certainly did not look rickety in his first day of training camp. He participated in 11 periods of drills, which included cutbacks, backpedaling and a few one-on-one coverage routes. He admitted after practice, with a smile, that "they gotta hold me back" from doing more. It would be difficult to know from watching him that he was injured at all.
"He looked like Revis," said rookie cornerback Johnthan Banks, who will compete for the starting spot opposite Revis (and therefore should be given the nickname "Outer Banks" to match "Revis Island"). The Bucs are being properly cautious, and it's unknown if Revis will play a preseason game, but at this point it would be surprising if he's not starting in the Meadowlands Week 1 against the Jets. After all, he participated in the very first drill of training camp Thursday, and coach Greg Schiano gives the sense that the progress from non-contact drills to pads to hitting to scrimmaging to the opener is a matter of when, not if.
"So much will be based on his input," Schiano said. "How does he feel?"
It's a little unfair to compare anyone's recovery to Peterson's, but the professionalism, drive and character in Revis are similar. Bucs safeties coach Jeff Hafley coached Revis at Pitt and said, "My first impression of him lasted a lifetime."
Revis' competitiveness was "just incredible," Hafley said, and that hasn't changed at all after seven years in the NFL. Hafley won't predict if Revis will come back better than ever, but his response to the idea was telling.
"Knowing who he is as a person," Hafley said, "he'll show that very soon."
Asked if he had any concerns about Revis' full recovery, Hafley said, "I don't have any concerns."
The thing about the best athletes is that they don't imagine maintaining a level of excellence. They imagine surpassing it. Surely that's what Revis has been imagining since he got, what he considered, good news about his ACL tear. Mentally, he's been ahead of schedule for months. Now the reality reflects that.
Bucs fans are waiting for Revis to be full strength. Revis is waiting to be better than that.
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