Keith Bulluck picked the worst possible time to blow out his knee. Not that he had much say in the matter, but on Dec. 20 of last year, the longtime Titans linebacker saw his career flash before his eyes.
There were signs that Tennessee was already prepared to move on without Bulluck, who would become an unrestricted free agent. But even at age 33, a healthy Bulluck would've been an attractive option for teams in a weak free-agent market. Bulluck began rehab work on his torn ACL at the Titans' facility last January, but he packed up his things in late February before the start of free agency "so they didn't have to kick me out."
Bulluck knew he wanted to continue playing, but he didn't want to talk to teams until he'd nearly made a full recovery. And so that's how he found himself working out in front of Giants "coaches, scouts, trainers, equipment managers and even the cooks" July 19 in the Meadowlands. After waiting to see if Bulluck's knee swelled the next day, general manager Jerry Reese and coach Tom Coughlin quickly offered the linebacker a contract. Bulluck went ahead and attended a planned workout with the Cardinals, but it was obvious which way he was leaning.
"It was like going through another pro day 11 years after I left Syracuse," Bulluck said of his Giants workout. "It was the first time I had to do all the ball drills and hit the bags, and I knew it would all be on video. But I knew from the start that I wanted to play for Coach Coughlin. I remember talking to him when he was with Jacksonville and he's a straight-shooter like me. And I played college ball for Paul Pasqualoni, and I don't know how much tougher you can get than him."
Bulluck signed a one-year contract with the Giants that could reportedly be worth as much as $2.5 million, but he swears that money never factored into his decision. This is a proud player who was still performing at a high level in Tennessee -- 108 tackles in '09 -- when he suffered the knee injury. After years of playing in small-market Nashville, he's excited to see what he can accomplish on the big stage. In fact, I doubt there are a lot of folks who know Bulluck was nicknamed "Mr. Monday Night" for his superb performances in those games.
In a fortuitous move, Bulluck decided eight years ago to build a home about 15 minutes away from Giants Stadium. He figured that he'd finish his career in Tennessee, but he's a New Yorker at heart. Bulluck was admittedly a bit "lost" when he first showed up in town. He tried one rehab facility for a week or two, but he wasn't around any other athletes and didn't feel like he was making progress. Through a friend, he met a physical therapist/athletic trainer/strength trainer named Gary Guerriero who works out of the U.S. Athletic Training Center in the heart of Manhattan. Guerriero, who has also trained NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, told Bulluck that he appeared to be "six to eight weeks" behind schedule in his rehab work.
"He was down to 223 pounds and he looked a little lost to me," said Guerriero, who happens to be an avid Giants fan. "But from that day on, it was like Superman coming out of the phone booth. I interjected some things here and there, but I basically sat there and enjoyed watching a machine at work."
Once Bulluck was cleared to run, he headed to Phoenix to work out at Fischer Sports alongside elite players such as Donovan McNabb, Darrelle Revis and Leonard Davis. It was hard for him to stay on the sideline when he saw McNabb putting his new Redskins teammates through "Hell Week" earlier this month.
But in the end, Bulluck leaned on a former Giants great for career advice. Bulluck knew Michael Strahan because they'd crossed paths in the offseason.
"He told me what it was like to win a Super Bowl as a Giant," said Bulluck. "He told me about all his good experiences playing on this stage and even some of the bad ones. And it helped my fire start to burn a little bit more. I knew that I needed to play here for myself. I need that weight on my shoulders. I've been smart financially, so I'm not worried about that stuff. This just appealed to my competitive nature."
Bulluck made his reputation playing weakside linebacker with the Titans, but he doesn't think moving to the middle will be a big adjustment. He already played middle linebacker in passing situations, so it's not completely foreign to him. And the thought of calling the defense appeals to him because he said that his defensive coordinators in Tennessee always thought of him as another member of the coaching staff. That said, Bulluck doesn't expect anything to be handed to him in training camp.
"I view this as an open competition," said Bulluck. "They have some guys in mind already to fill the void that Antonio [Pierce] left. I'm another one of the guys in the mix and no one has promised me anything. But I've never backed down from competition and I haven't been bustin' my ass since Jan. 2 for nothing."
Reese and Coughlin love signing players who have something to prove. Bulluck wants to show that the Titans erred in letting him walk. And he couldn't have found a bigger stage to launch the second act of his career.