Seth Payne has a message for Texans fans. He feels your pain.
"I've got a lot of respect for fans now," Payne said Monday after his morning
workout. "I've had a whole year to sit and watch and get frustrated. It's a lot
tougher sitting in the stands than it is actually playing in a game.
"When you're playing you have sense of control. When you're watching, all you can do sweat, wring your hands and scream. That's what I was doing for 14 weeks."
But Payne also asks that you not take offense at the fact he's had his fill of watching from your vantage point. The Texans' nose tackle is determined to get back on the field in 2004 and complete the recovery from his most frustarting season as a pro.
Payne turned in a career season in Houston in 2002, starting all 16 games and racking up a career-best 147 tackles. He opened the 2003 season in impressive fashion as well, collecting eight tackles in the Texans' season-opening win at Miami. The following week at New Orleans, Payne had three tackles in the first quarter.
But on the third play of the second quarter, his season ended. Payne burst through the backfield and, well, let him tell you.
"I got my foot stuck and the knee gave out on me," he said.
It was the ACL in Payne's left knee. His season was over but the drama was just beginning.
Payne had his first surgery on Sept. 29. Initially, the rehab was proceeding at a normal pace.
"The surgery went great, I was flying along on rehab," Payne said. "But all of a sudden, after eight weeks, the thing inexplicably flared up on me. It swelled up and I could barely walk. We ended up going in to clean it out in case there was a staph infection. After about a month, we realized it was probably an immune response. My body was just rejecting the cadaver Achilles tendon we put in there.
"They took that out, gave me a month to strengthen and let the holes where the screws had been heal up."
So on Jan. 12, Payne went under the knife again. Dr. Walter Lowe took a patella tendon from his right knee and put it in his left ACL. Thre result? So far, so good.
"Dr. Lowe was excited when he went in there because he said the joint was in really good shape," Payne said. "Sometimes when you do a revision like that, you never know what might happen. But he said everything looked great structurally. I don't have any arthritis or any joint damage.
"The difference between that and normal ACL surgery is that it had atrophied quite a bit since we started having problems. But now it's just been a matter of strengthening the leg. As far as we can tell, there's nothing different with my joint compared to how it would be with a normal ACL."
So Payne's rehab continues. He works on his upper body with strength and conditioning coach Dan Riley, while rehabbing his lower body with assistant trainer Tom Colt.
"I'm very lucky to have Tom," Payne said. "He's getting me back to running. In a normal situation, I'd be back to running but they're being cautious with the joint. Right now it's a matter of strengthening the muscles so that when I do start running in a couple of weeks, it'll be ready.
"I'm doing a lot of hopping, leg presses, squats, stuff like that. It's coming along."
Payne has never had an ACL injury before, although in 1999 with the Jaguars he came back from a partially torn patella tendon and a dislocated shoulder.
"That was a tough season to come back from," Payne said. "But I think with the nature of the injuries and my maturity at the time, I wasn't as far along on my rehab as I am now.
"Not that I was immature then, but I'm more mature now. You turn these things into a positive. I've probably been more committed the past three months than in any January, February and March of my career."
And Payne says he can also draw confidence in talking to other players who have bounced back from a similar injury.
"You talk to a guy like Zach Wiegert -- he really felt one of his best seasons was after he had his ACL because he
did so much technique work and running work in the off-season," Payne said.
So the obvious question begs -- when is Payne returning to the field? He has a pretty good idea.
"I'd like to be out there the first training camp practice but I know they're going to be very cautious, which is good," Payne said. "Hopefully, we'll be in a situation where they're holding me back from doing everything I could just to be safe. Unless we come up with something unexpected, I can't see me not being out there for those last couple of preseason games.
"I'm real pleased and real confident that I'm going to be back for the first
game of the regular season."
And that's good news for a Texans defense that gutted through numerous injuries last season. In 2002, Payne had a career season and defensive end Gary Walker made the Pro Bowl. In 2003, the two never played next to each other and played a combined total of just six games.
But with Payne's return, Walker's return, the free agent addition of Robaire Smith and the experience Houston's backup defensive linemen received last season, it appears Houston's front three could return to its 2002 form.
"Going into last season, we as a defensive line had really figured out the defense and gotten comfortable," Payne said. "If you look at that first year, the way we played on defense, we bascially have the same personnel plus some new and improved players this season.
"It should be an exciting year for us."