Spencer Ware's return path to Chiefs' starting lineup was not easy

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- When Spencer Ware was carted off the field during a 2017 preseason game in Seattle with a knee injury, the Chiefs didn't know if they would ever see the running back play for them again.

The damage in his right knee was that severe. This was no common ACL tear. Ware instead had a torn posterior cruciate ligament and suffered damage to the posterolateral corner of his knee.

The Chiefs at the time thought it might be the end of a career that saw Ware lead the team in rushing in 2016 with 921 yards.

"There was a potential question on that at one point," Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. "You never know when they have the surgery. You knew that was a pretty tough one to come back from."

Ware made it back this season. And he suddenly looms as a key figure for the 10-2 Chiefs, who released former starter Kareem Hunt last week after a video surfaced showing Hunt shoving and kicking a woman in February. Ware had 47 yards and a 1-yard touchdown run in his return as the featured back in Sunday's win at the Oakland Raiders.

Only a difficult rehab process allowed that to happen.

"I saw a lot of emotion from him," said recently signed Chiefs running back Charcandrick West, who worked out with Ware during the rehab. "I saw a lot of good days and a lot of bad days. It showed a lot of character to come back from an injury like that. A lot of guys would have ended their football career. There were a lot of days when he was sore, when he was stiff."

The Chiefs, unsure whether Ware would make it back, loaded up on veteran running backs. They signed as a free agent -- among others -- Damien Williams, who is now Ware's leading backup.

They finally started to feel better about Ware's likely return in training camp.

"Once he got out there and was able to cut on it and really put significant weight on it and plant and go," Reid said of the moment when he knew Ware would play for the Chiefs this season. "The next step was getting hit and continuing to push through that without hesitation."

Ware did that well enough to start the season as Hunt's main backup. But Hunt -- who had 824 rushing yards, 378 receiving yards and 14 total touchdowns before being released -- left Ware little playing time. Ware got into the game sparingly, mostly on third downs.

But Ware got back to being the regular RB1 in Oakland.

"I haven't done that in a while," he said. "It's more endurance, just getting [used to being] pounded and pounded throughout the course of a game, 60 minutes."

Ware doesn't have Hunt's big-play ability, but he is as powerful a runner. He showed that on his touchdown in Oakland.

Ware took a direct snap from center and scored without much room to spare on a fourth-down play.

"He just has that toughness when he runs," Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes said. "It's like every single time he gets tackled he's pushing the pile for an extra few yards. You saw when he got to the goal line how he fought and got that touchdown."

After leading the Chiefs in rushing in 2016, Ware lost his starting job to Hunt only because of the injury. Ware said it's like 2016 for him again now that he's the regular featured back.

"Nothing's changed," he said. "Make big plays and score touchdowns, win games."