Browns' Bentley vows to come back better than ever
BEREA, Ohio -- After a successful ascent up two tiny stairs, Browns center LeCharles Bentley placed his crutches to the side and plopped down into the first available chair on the podium.
"Can I sit right here?" Bentley asked, wiping sweat from his forehead. "That was a hike."
Much steeper climbs await in the months ahead.
Bentley sustained a season-ending knee injury during Cleveland's second practice of training camp last week. On Wednesday, he promised to return as a better player and better person.
When the Browns line up for their 2007 opener, Bentley plans to be the man in the middle of Cleveland's line.
"I am going to play next year," he said. "For anybody who has it in their mind that they doubt I'll play, that's unfortunate. I'm OK, I'll be OK and this will make me a better player, teammate, leader, citizen of the city, brother and father. I'll be better in all aspects in my life having gone through this.
"The least of my worries is playing for the Cleveland Browns next season because I know that's going to happen."
Cleveland's highest-profile free agent signing last winter, Bentley tore the patellar tendon in his left knee on the club's first 11-on-11 play of camp. His injury seemed to diminish some of the preseason buzz surrounding the Browns, who expect to improve on last year's 6-10 record under rookie coach Romeo Crennel.
Bentley's arrival had added to the optimism of Cleveland fans, who have endured more than their share of heartache. After all, Bentley was an Ohio State Buckeye who came home to play for the Browns.
But on one innocent snap, on a play he has undoubtedly run thousands of times, Bentley damaged his knee and a warm and fuzzy homecoming story became another reason to wonder if the Browns, stung by so many bad breaks in recent years, are cursed.
Bentley refuses to label his injury as anything but misfortune.
"I think that it's absurd to think the team is jinxed," he said. "We're not jinxed now and we're not going to be lucky when we win the Super Bowl."
Nearly a week since getting hurt, Bentley is still having trouble accepting his setback, a personal blow he can't put into words.
"When I was in the hospital, the doctors would always ask me what my pain was on a scale of 1 to 10. If you use that scale, obviously, my disappointment is a 10."
He still can't figure out what went wrong. One second, he was leading the way for Reuben Droughns. The next, he was on the ground.
"No one touched me," said Bentley, a two-time Pro Bowler for New Orleans who tore his anterior cruciate ligament in 2003. "It was a freak thing. I took two steps, felt the injury and that was it. I felt like somebody had kicked me."
The real kick would come later when Bentley learned that he wouldn't be able to play this season.
In the numbing seconds after he got hurt, Bentley felt a tingling sensation in his knee and feared the worst. He blocked out any pain and immediately began to process the long road back to health.
"Your mind starts going 1,000 miles per hour," he said. "You start thinking about the recovery and how severe it is. There are so many emotions at that moment that went through my mind. The last thing I was thinking about was pain. It really hasn't hurt. It was really more an emotional situation than a painful one."
Bentley was released from the Cleveland Clinic on Monday and the 26-year-old player already has begun rehab. The initial steps are to get range of motion in his knee, and Bentley was excited that he can already bend it 45 degrees. Next will be weight-bearing exercises to strengthen his knee.
Bentley understands the comeback will be tougher than any block he has ever thrown.
"I've never really been a patient person," he said. "Things have always come naturally to me. Obviously, this isn't a natural process. Learning to adjust with my body and my limitations is going to be a difficult challenge. When it's all said and done, it's going to make me better."
In the meantime, Bentley pledged his support to the Browns, new teammates he was just beginning to bond with.
"I'll be the best cheerleader in the league," he said, smiling. "I know we don't have any cheerleaders. I'm not saying I'll wear a skirt, but I'll be there for the guys. The season must go on."
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press
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