Spikes realizes he has golden opportunity with Eagles

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- Outside linebacker Takeo Spikes has been a member of the Philadelphia Eagles for just more than four months, which apparently has been enough time to develop a humorous routine with middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter.

Every time Trotter feels the urge, he glances toward Spikes before leaving the huddle and hollers "Are you with me?" Spikes doesn't even let a moment pass before uttering his customary response: "10-4, commander. Roger that." It's a clear example of how quickly Spikes has bonded with his new teammate but the playful lingo also speaks to something else, something far more critical -- how giddy this latest opportunity makes Spikes.

After all, there are several players on the Eagles' roster who can lament not having acquired a Super Bowl ring after reaching the postseason in six of the past seven years. Spikes can't really empathize with that, though. He's never reached the postseason in his 10-year career and, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, leads the NFL with the most regular-season games played without appearing in a playoff game. It's even more frustrating when considering what Spikes has gone through during the past two seasons, including a torn right Achilles tendon in 2005 and a substandard performance last season that helped prompt Buffalo to trade him to Philadelphia in March.

That's not to say that Spikes has any hint of bitterness or desperation in him. He's simply hungrier now than he's ever been.

"There's definitely a lot of motivation for me," Spikes said after Monday's morning practice. "I look back at my Achilles injury and it came when I was just starting to take my game to another level, especially with the mental part. Then when I came back last season, I couldn't do all the things that I was used to doing because my leg wasn't strong enough. Even now, I'm surprising myself with the things I'm doing on the field. It's been that long since I've done them at full strength."

It's crucial that Spikes continue rediscovering the skills that made him a two-time Pro Bowler. It's been a long time since the Eagles had an outside linebacker with his ability and they need him to help a defense that ranked 26th in the NFL against the run in 2006. At his best, the 6-foot-2, 242-pound Spikes can handle any responsibility a defensive coordinator asks of him. He can blitz, cover and make open-field tackles with relative ease. He's also versatile enough to play either on the strong or weak side, though he'll start on the weak side in the Eagles defense.

The big question, however, is whether Spikes really has much left at this stage of his career. He turns 31 on Dec. 17 and still needs to prove that he's not a diminished talent. So far the Eagles say they're not concerned. "He's a great leader and you can see that in the way he practices," said Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. "I know he had that injury a couple years ago but from what I've seen, he's still moving around pretty well."

One thing Spikes hasn't had to do is worry about how he'll fit in with the Eagles. For one, Johnson's aggressive defense is quite similar to the one Dick LeBeau used during Spikes' five years in Cincinnati and three of Spikes' four seasons in Buffalo.

Secondly, Spikes also has developed a strong friendship with Trotter. They first met as draft prospects at the 1998 NFL scouting combine and they reconnected again at the Pro Bowl following the 2004 season. In fact, Trotter thinks so highly of Spikes that he still keeps the Pro Bowl jersey Spikes gave him on a wall in his suburban Philadelphia home. "We're like long-lost brothers," Trotter said.

Spikes is also smart enough to understand that he needed players like Trotter around in order to succeed at his next stop after Buffalo. When he first realized the Bills were shopping him, Spikes had hoped to land with a team blessed with great individual talent on defense, a stable quarterback situation and an entrenched coaching staff. Spikes never had the last two advantages during his stints in Cincinnati and Buffalo. He found all three with the Eagles.

Those factors are what make this year so interesting for Spikes. The man certainly understands how hard it is to win in the NFL and how easy it is to lose. But that Achilles injury also stamped something else into Spikes' memory: the realization of how quickly all his future opportunities could vanish. He said he didn't dwell on the possibilities that he might never excel again after that injury but he certainly admitted how devastating that injury was.

Spikes endured that adversity with constant prayer and phone calls to friends like Seahawks linebacker Julian Peterson, who sustained the same setback as a member of the San Francisco 49ers and encouraged Spikes to stay patient during his rehabilitation.

Spikes' own young daughter, 4-year-old Jakai, also supported him in her own way. One day last summer, she ran away from Spikes while playing and noticed that her dad couldn't chase her. When she saw Spikes gently rubbing his right heel and shaking his head in obvious doubt, she ambled back to him and said he would be fine sooner or later.

Moments like those are what make Spikes savor the importance of being in Philadelphia. "I feel like I deserve this chance after 10 years in the NFL. And I'm going to do everything I can to make it work," he said.

It's apparent that Spikes didn't say this for effect. He's saying it because he knows the Eagles have given him a chance to be part of a winner. And at this stage of his career, he realizes that is something that should never be taken for granted.

Jeffri Chadiha is a senior writer for ESPN.com.