DeMarcus Ware sticks his neck out

IRVING, Texas -- As DeMarcus Ware walked across the Superdome field on Dec. 19, 2009, fresh off the bus from the Dallas Cowboys' French Quarter hotel, he had no idea whether he would play against the New Orleans Saints.

Six days earlier, Ware -- No. 12 on the ESPN.com/ESPN The Magazine's NFL Any Era team -- suffered a neck injury when he slammed into the hip of San Diego Chargers tackle Brandyn Dombrowski that temporarily left him motionless. The Cowboys' medical staff unscrewed his face mask and strapped the All-Pro outside linebacker to a board to prevent him from moving.

As he was carted off the field, he told teammates he would be fine, but a 30-minute ambulance ride from Cowboys Stadium in Arlington to Dallas Presbyterian Hospital seemed a lot longer.

Feeling returned and he could move without pain. By the next day, he was surprised at how well he felt and even lifted weights.

But play in an NFL game six days later?

"I didn't practice at all that week, and something just came over me when I went into the stadium," Ware said. "Everybody was like, 'You can just sit out this game and rest,' but in the back of my mind I was like, 'This is my stage. This is my opportunity to prove my toughness and also prove to myself that I can make a comeback.' "

It remains the only game in his career Ware has not started, but it is also the signature game of a career that could lead him to the Cowboys' Ring of Honor and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The Cowboys entered that game having lost two straight December contests, leading many fans to wonder whether the inevitable late-season collapse was upon their team. The Saints were unbeaten (13-0) and threatening perfection. At the Superdome, New Orleans won its first six games by an average of 15.3 points.

After pregame testing, Ware was cleared to play, but Victor Butler would see the bulk of the action. Ware played in passing downs, which against the Saints meant a lot anyway.

In the second quarter, he sacked Drew Brees and forced a fumble that Anthony Spencer recovered. The Cowboys turned that into a Nick Folk field goal and a 17-3 lead.

In the final minute of the fourth quarter, with the Saints threatening to tie the score, Ware sacked Brees again and forced a fumble that Jay Ratliff recovered. Tony Romo took a knee with six seconds left and the Cowboys had an improbable 24-17 win that jump-started a three-game winning streak, leading to the NFC East title.

Ware finished with two tackles, two sacks and three quarterback hurries.

"For him to fight through that and have the impact he had in the game says so much about him as a person and a player and what he means to this team," inside linebacker Keith Brooking said in the locker room after the game.

Ware returned to the starting lineup the following week against the Washington Redskins. He finished the year with 11 sacks and was named to the Pro Bowl for the fourth straight time.

"It wasn't the physical part of it," Ware said. "It was the mental aspect of knowing your career could've been ended, and now you're out here with the opportunity to play again and you don't know what's going to happen."

Ware will play in his sixth straight Pro Bowl this weekend and was named an All-Pro for the fourth time. He led the Cowboys with 19.5 sacks in 2011, finishing a half sack shy of becoming the first player to record two 20-sack seasons in a career since sacks became an official stat in 1982.

That night in New Orleans, however, remains his signature moment.

"It was one of the most satisfying games that I've had because of just the opportunity to know you can do it again and play and have some kind of impact in that game," Ware said. "I'd say it was one of the most important games I played in."

Todd Archer covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.