Less than six months into rehabilitating his surgically repaired left knee, Mike Rucker has made substantial progress in his recovery, and the Carolina Panthers' much-respected right defensive end cites two things for putting him into position to possibly be ready for the start of the 2007 regular season.
Hard work and harsh reality.
"The bottom line is, if you don't put in the hours [rehabilitating], you're not going to come back from an injury like this, especially at my age," said Rucker, who turned 32 in February. "That's just how it is. So you do whatever you have to do, every day, and you try not to miss a beat. In my case, I just didn't want [my career] to end that way. You want to walk off the field at the end, not be carted off."
It's not yet a certainty that Rucker, an eight-year veteran who is widely acknowledged as one of the Panthers' leaders on and off the field, will be in the lineup when Carolina opens the season on Sept. 9 at St. Louis. He hasn't yet participated in any team drills and, when the Panthers went through three days of organized team activities sessions (OTA) this week, he worked off to the side, doing individual exercises.
Compounding his situation is the timing of the severe injury. Rucker tore two ligaments, the anterior cruciate and medial collateral, in a Dec. 17 game against Pittsburgh. Factoring in the normal 10-to-12-month rehabilitation period would make it unlikely that Rucker would be back until about the midway point of the '07 campaign.
He began working out again, though, the day after surgery on his knee, and has been at the team's Bank of America complex every day since for a minimum of four hours. So there is some legitimate reason for optimism.
"You can go into the books and find somebody that [came back] in five or six months, and you can probably find somebody that took a year and a half," Rucker told the Charlotte Observer this week. "There's not a timetable on it. It's just how it responds. . . There are a lot of different factors."
Clearly, the Panthers' brass, which did not pursue a veteran end in free agency, continues to be guardedly optimistic Rucker will be on the field at some point in training camp, which begins in late July. The team did invest a third-round pick on Charles Johnson in this year's draft, and the former University of Georgia standout has been splitting time at right end with second-year veteran Stanley McClover this spring.
But the depth chart still has Rucker as the No. 1 right end and coach John Fox said the team will do everything it can to assure the eight-year veteran has a chance to be on the field early in the season.
"We won't rush him and we'll be smart with it," Fox said. "Even when he starts practicing, we'll be smart with it. The fact he's got those years of experience in our system means that [being cautions with Rucker] doesn't freak you out too much."
A second-round pick in the 1999 draft, Rucker has been a fixture in the Panthers' lineup since 2001, when he became a starter. He has the second-most tackles (491) and second most sacks (52 ½) in franchise history, has 15 forced fumbles, five recoveries and 25 passes defensed in 123 appearances, including 91 starts.
The former Nebraska star was having a typically understated but steady season in 2006, with 39 tackles and five sacks, before the knee injury. He feels that, barring any setbacks in his rehabilitation, he can have a productive year in 2007.
"It's hard and, at first, it's very emotional, because you look at the injury and you know what it's going to take to come back from it," Rucker said. "But I'm determined and motivated to get back. I'm not going to let [the injury] beat me."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com