Long road home


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Seth Payne has been champing at the bit for months now. And so have his teammates. On Thursday night, the stingy defensive tackle will finally get his much-anticipated wish when he steps into game action for the first time in almost one year when Houston hosts the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Reliant Stadium.

Payne tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee when the Texans traveled to New Orleans during Week 2 of the 2003 regular season. Payne was off to a strong start, pacing the defensive line with eight stops in the season opener at Miami while helping to hold Ricky Williams to just 69 rushing yards. In just one quarter of play in the Superdome the following week, Payne sacked Saints' quarterback Aaron Brooks before dislocating his femur and snapping the ligament.

The day after, he was placed on the injured reserve list only to watch his teammates from the sidelines in frustration for the remainder of the 2003 schedule.

Texans fans have shared Payne's restlessness and have been more than eager to have him back out as the anchor along the defensive line. Emails and calls have poured into the Texans offices for months, all inquiring about Payne's recovery and status.

After undergoing ACL surgery and an additional two arthroscopic surgeries over the winter months, Payne is finally able to see the light at the end of the rehabilitation tunnel.

It's been a slow progression back into Houston's rigorous practice schedule, but Payne will finally get to see live bullets against the Bucs in the Texans final preseason bout.

During spring mini-camps and into the beginning of training camp, he had been limited to small, simple drills. The coaching, training and strength and conditioning staff began to cautiously add him back into the regular rotation so by that mid-August, Payne was taking part in team drills for the first time.

Recently, Payne and fellow defensive lineman Junior Ioane have both been more active in practice repetitions but have been restricted from the preseason game lineups.

"Over the past few weeks Junior and I have been doing all the difficult stuff and none of the fun stuff," Payne said Monday. "We've been doing all of the drills in practice but haven't been able to play in the game so it's a lot more fun."

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Payne has been ready to return and contribute for some time now. It was just a matter of getting the go-ahead-nod from the Texans' medical team and coaching staff.

"I've felt great and I thought I looked great playing on the field, but I think these guys thought a little different so I think they were holding me out until they thought I was ready."

The Texans have been understandably cautious through the process, working with Payne to keep up his strength and stamina, while realizing that his worth was just too valuable to rush any kind of premature comeback.

"We kept an open dialogue the whole time and I think even though I felt good in practice, I think probably until this past week I wasn't really recovering between practices as quickly as they'd liked," Payne said. "Now I'm at a point where practice is no big deal so it's time to take the next step."

Having Payne back into action changes the whole look and intensity among the Texans defensive unit. His addition gives the defense a very well respected leader and solid run-stopper while adding more pressure on the pocket-all components that the league's 31st defense came up short on in 2003.

Right now, the plan is to keep Payne in the game for around one entire half, depending on how many plays the starting unit will take part in on their home field.

More than anything, Payne is relishing the opportunity to participate in one final dress rehearsal before opening day on September 12.

"I needed to get some work against live competition because it's just not the same in practice," he said. "You don't get the same speed and the same look and you don't get to tackle people. So I think mentally more than physically that's important."

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