Texans running back Ben Tate was given a clean bill of health by doctors on Tuesday, six months after an ankle injury ended his rookie season before it started.
It took almost three months after surgery just for Tate to be able to walk without assistance. He started running a month later and was able to run without a limp about two weeks ago. Now, the early mornings and long days of rehab at Reliant Stadium are finally behind him.
"It feels good just to be able to hear those words from the doctor: 'You're done with rehab,'" Tate said. "It's just like a small burden lifted off my shoulders a little bit. I've been going for so long just trying to get my ankle back right, and just to be able to hear that, it feels good."
Tate was drafted out of Auburn in the second round, higher than any running back in Texans history, at 58th overall. The Texans liked his combination of size and speed, hoping he could help improve a running game that ranked 30th in the league in 2009.
That was before Arian Foster's All-Pro season, but the Texans' expectations for Tate are still high. Running backs coach Chick Harris called his recovery "exciting for our entire organization."
"It's a credit to Ben that he worked his tail off," Harris said. "And our medical staff, they did a great job in rehab. He followed all the directions and did extra. He's been with the program all the way through the season, being at games, coming to some meetings and making sure that he was always around us, asking questions, understanding the climate and what you have to do to prepare for a game."
The last game that Tate actually prepared to play in was his first one, the Texans' preseason opener against the Arizona Cardinals on Aug. 14. He was hurt on his second carry of the game, a 12-yard gain in the third quarter, when he was tackled by linebacker Darryl Washington.
"I remember everything about that play," Tate said. "I remember the play call. I remember making the cut and making the lineman miss and stepping out of it and thinking, 'You turn on the jets, you might take this a little ways.' And then I just remember feeling somebody, kind of like a last-ditch effort – he barely got my ankle, but when he got it, it just kind of felt funny. And then everyone else hopped on and pulled me down, and right then I knew something wasn't right. I didn't think it was going to be this bad, but I just knew something wasn't right with my ankle."
Tate was carted off the field and into the locker room, and the Texans announced the following day that he would have season-ending surgery.
"It was very tough, because I know this organization was expecting big things out of me and I was expecting to do big things, to come and help propel this team to the next level or whatever," Tate said. "All these things are running through your head, (and) it was just like, 'Wow, I'm letting everybody down. I'm letting myself down.' But at the same time, you know, there's nothing really you can do about it because it's out of your control. You can't control when you get injured."
Worse still, Tate had missed most of organized team activities last spring because of a hamstring injury. He was fully healthy for training camp and says that he felt like he was just starting to do well before the injury.
"I was just starting to understand things," Tate said. "It was taking me a couple weeks. But that week of the game, even the coaches had let me know that they could tell I was doing a lot better and I was starting to understand things. And I could tell as well because I was doing less thinking, starting to move a little quicker. It's just unfortunate that it happened at that time."
Tate said that during the months of rehab that followed, what motivated him on the toughest days was the thought of being able to play on Sundays. He's eager to get that chance in 2011.
"I'm very hungry," he said. "I'm going to work my butt off this coming offseason. Just going to work hard to get back to where I was and hopefully come back better, and to show everyone why they drafted me in the second round."
The landscape in the Texans' backfield, of course, has changed dramatically. When Tate was drafted, Foster was coming off of a strong finish to his rookie season after going undrafted himself. Now, Foster is coming off of an All-Pro season that saw him lead the league in rushing, yards from scrimmage and touchdowns.
So where does Tate see himself fitting in with the competition?
"I don't back down from nobody, man," he said. "That's just my mindset. That's just the way I've been brought up, that's the way I've been raised. I don't settle for being second-best. So I'm definitely going to work. He earned his due, he made a Pro Bowl. I respect him for that. He's a good player and I totally respect him for that, but that doesn't mean I'm going to back down from challenging him every day. That's all I can do is go out, work hard, challenge him every day. We're going to see what happens from there."
That's exactly the type of mindset that Harris expects.
"Ben has to have the attitude that he's going to try to beat Arian out," Harris said. "Arian has to have an attitude that he won't let anybody catch him. And that's how they're going to have to approach it. It's got to be full competition, and it's a great environment when you have top athletes being able to compete for a position. All it's going to do is make all of them better."
Regardless of what happens, Tate has a message for Texans fans who might be wondering what he's capable of next season.
"Don't count me out," he said. "I think I'll make more plays than what they think. Just don't count me out yet."