About three months after ACL surgery, Rivers returns

SAN DIEGO -- Philip Rivers was chatting in a hallway after a minicamp practice Friday as the Chargers' offensive linemen came bulldozing through.

Each of them gave their quarterback a wink or a smile or a nod. Everyone had something for Rivers. There was recognition. There was adoration. There was the acknowledgment of a leader.

"I don't know what 'it' is, but PR has it," San Diego center Cory Withrow said. "He loves his teammates and we all give it back to him. The guy is going into his third year playing and he acts like he's a 15-year vet. He didn't need to be out here for a May camp with that injury, but he loves it. The guy is all football all the time. He just gets it."

Make no mistake, the San Diego Chargers are Rivers' team. Yes, this is a roster glowing with Pro Bowl players, even a future Hall of Famer or two. LaDainian Tomlinson, Antonio Gates, Shawne Merriman and Jamal Williams make the Chargers special.

Rivers makes the Chargers tick.

While he is still growing into the position, the No. 4 overall draft pick in 2004 is the leader of this team. That was abundantly clear Friday morning, when Rivers was leading the team in its first minicamp practice. The guy just won't stay off the football field.

"This is so fun, I couldn't wait for this to come," said Rivers, who is entering his third season as a starter. "The season is coming."

Never bet on Rivers missing a play. While working in a practice under a perfect San Diego sky on the second day of May wouldn't be considered heroic by most, what Rivers accomplished Friday was stunning. It was exactly 100 days since his January surgery to repair the torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Rivers celebrated the landmark day by practicing.

That shouldn't be. Rivers shouldn't be running with his teammates these days, either, but Withrow marvels that he's there daily, grinding it out with the rest of the Chargers.

People aren't supposed to play on a torn ACL, either. Rivers did. On Jan. 13 in Indianapolis, he injured his right knee in the Chargers' upset win over the Colts in the AFC divisional playoffs. On Jan. 14, he had arthroscopic surgery to clean out the damaged cartilage. He was told all week leading up to the Jan. 20 AFC title game at New England that there was no way he could play. Somehow, Rivers did.

He had surgery Jan. 23 to repair the torn ACL. Less than four months later, he's back on the field -- and wearing a heavy brace on his right knee.

Rivers threw crisp passes Friday. He appeared sharp and on schedule to play in the preseason and start the regular season as the Chargers' leader.

"He's the guy," Chargers receiver Vincent Jackson said. "He's an animal. It's been three months and he's at a minicamp? We've known all along how tough he is and what he means to this team."

Rivers, whose regular-season record as a starter is 25-7, laughs at how he is now looked at nationally after his performance in the Chargers' 21-12 loss to the Patriots. Prior to that game, Rivers was known as an average quarterback who has a tendency to get lippy on the field, directing his zeal toward opponents and opposing fans.

Now, he's a folk hero.

"Perception is a strange thing," Rivers said. "I didn't play for people to talk about me like some hero. I played because my teammates needed me. I wasn't the only one. We had guys banged up. But it was for the Super Bowl. We had to play."

Rivers, 26, doesn't regret playing, even though he wasn't himself in the game. He completed 19 of 37 pass attempts for 211 yards. He was intercepted twice and the Chargers had to settle for four Nate Kaeding field goals in the game.

just had to play," Rivers said. "That's what I do."

And that's why he is practicing at a minicamp. Rivers admits that he might not work every day in training camp and he knows his knee will be watched closely this summer as the Chargers begin another Super Bowl push. Perhaps that's why Rivers is already ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation.

"They have told me that it will be 18 months before I can't feel anything wrong with the knee," Rivers said. "It's been three months. I'm feeling good. I know there will be steps to take. And I have to take them."

Tomlinson, the Chargers' best player, laughs when asked about Rivers. Tomlinson said he knows he should be amazed by Rivers' rapid progress. But Tomlinson says he just expects it from his quarterback.

"That's just Philip," Tomlinson said. "He's a real fast healer. Yes, he's a leader, but he heals fast, too. That's a good combination to have. Philip knows he's a big part of this team. He knows he's needed."

Just looking at his linemen's faces shows how much Rivers is needed in San Diego.

Bill Williamson covers the NFL for ESPN.com.