FRISCO, Texas -- DeMarcus Ware needs more than six minutes.
"That time isn't long enough," Ware said of the six-minute limit for his induction speech as part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2023 on Aug. 5. "I start to think about all the things I went through to get me to this point ..."
He doesn't need to finish the thought.
How is he supposed to sum up his path from Troy University, as an almost after-thought recruit, to the Dallas Cowboys as a first-round pick and a 12-year career with the Cowboys and Denver Broncos, filled with 138.5 sacks, four All-Pro selections, nine Pro Bowl appearances and a Super Bowl win in 360 seconds?
He could spend those six minutes on a six-day span in 2009, when he secured his legend as one of the all-time greats, going from motionless on the field after suffering a neck injury versus the Chargers to making a game-winning strip sack of New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees to help push the Cowboys toward the playoffs.
"I was having an out-of-body experience," Ware said. "I was floating when I was on that ground, when I got hurt against San Diego. It was like, 'I'm here, but I'm not totally here.'"
THERE WERE 11 minutes, 35 seconds left in the fourth quarter against the Chargers at the brand-new Cowboys Stadium on Dec. 13, 2009. The score was tied at 10. It was second-and-7 and Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers surveyed the Dallas defense from the Cowboys' 48. He never looked to his left. He knew No. 94 was there. He knew Ware would be coming after him.
As Ware gained the edge on left tackle Marcus McNeil, about 2 yards from Rivers, the quarterback stepped up in the pocket. Ware reached for him but came up short and his momentum carried him into the left thigh of Chargers right tackle Brandyn Dombrowski.
Ware's head was tucked as he collided with Dombrowski, and he immediately hit the ground.
His arms splayed; his legs too.
He lost feeling in his extremities.
"Imagine somebody punches you and all of your wind goes out of your nose," Ware said. "It stung a little bit. I'm lying there on the ground, looking around. I see the lights in the stadium."
Marcus Spears, a defensive lineman taken nine picks after Ware in the first round of the 2005 NFL draft and one of his closest friends, went to Ware.
"We look at D-Ware as Superman," Spears said. "The dude didn't get hurt. Didn't really miss anything [Ware missed three games in nine seasons with Dallas]. When he's first down, he's not moving, and I'm like, 'D, move something, bro.' I think it was just initial shock."
Jim Maurer, who has been the Cowboys' head athletic trainer since 1997, went onto the field with the rest of the medical staff, assuming the worst.
"From the beginning, we had a conscious player that was talking to us, which is a great sign, but you're preparing for other things," Maurer said. "So you take the precautions because when he says there's neck pain, you don't ignore that. You have to follow through. That's why we took his face mask off and put him on the backboard until you can rule things out."
The stadium was silent. A shot on TV of Jerry Jones showed the owner and general manager with his hands over his face. The players' level of concern was obvious.
Minutes passed slowly as the Cowboys' medical staff and EMTs got Ware ready to be transported off the field. Then came the first positive sign: He raised his left thumb as he was taken to the cart. Until the EMTs could lock the gurney in place, he spoke with Spears and defensive lineman Jay Ratliff, another member of the 2005 draft class. Associate athletic trainer Britt Brown took out Ware's mouthpiece.
"I don't remember that," Ware said. "That's funny."
As the cart made its way to one of the tunnels, Ware waved both of his hands. He moved his feet back and forth. With his hand, he made a "W" sign, signaling his last name.
Before Ware was placed in the ambulance, his feeling came back.
"But they had me strapped down so tight that I was feeling everything and it was, like, cutting my circulation off," Ware said. "It took me that long to say to myself, 'You're not moving,' because I believed I was moving. Now all I was thinking was, 'Get this f---ing stuff off me.'"
TWO PLAYS AFTER Ware was injured, the Chargers scored a touchdown. San Diego won the game 20-17, and the Cowboys' record dropped to 8-5 with back-to-back December losses.
By the time Maurer made it to the hospital after the game, all of Ware's testing was negative, and he was diagnosed with a stinger. He was in a neck collar but was allowed to return home that night.
On Monday morning, Ware drove himself to the team's Valley Ranch practice facility.
"I walked in the locker room and everybody looked at me like they just saw a ghost," Ware said.
The Cowboys had a game in six days, a short week with a Saturday kickoff against the 13-0 New Orleans Saints at the Superdome.
"It felt like Superman was back in the building. You knew as long as DeMarcus Ware was out there that we were going to make it difficult on the opposing offense and quarterback." Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo
He was telling teammates he could play. The medical staff wasn't so sure. Neither was head coach Wade Phillips.
"Anytime something like that happens, you hope they can get over it, but not in a week," Phillips said. "It's still player safety first. I mean I'm not going to play a guy if they can get hurt. I know you need to win and all that stuff, but we've always put player safety first."
Said Spears, "I remember it clearly. I said, 'Bro, you're not playing. Bro, it was like 24 hours ago, and we didn't know if you could move your legs.' He still had some neck pain, but he passed all the strength tests. I mean he's nothing but one big muscle. He was optimistic.
"I could tell he was a little shaken, like, 'Oh, man, that could've been worse.' And I think that's why in my mind I was so vigilant that he was not playing because you just don't know."
WARE DID NOT practice all week. He ditched the neck collar. He got treatment and kept passing all of the tests the doctors put in front of him. He studied like he normally did. He went through all of the meetings. He was medically cleared to play against the Saints.
As much as he told teammates he would play, he still wasn't sure as he made the short ride from the team hotel to the stadium that Saturday afternoon. When players arrive at the Superdome, they have to walk the length of the field to the locker room.
"We walk in and it's dead silent," Ware said. "Usually you hear guys chatter. Or music's playing through their headphones. But I didn't hear anything ... I see the guys, they were down. I was like, 'Man, this could be a spark for the team.' I'm not thinking of myself. I'm thinking of the team. If we win this game, we [should] get in the playoffs. It's about the team. I've always been that way."
"Anytime something like that happens, you hope they can get over it, but not in a week. ... I know you need to win and all that stuff, but we've always put player safety first." Cowboys coach Wade Phillips on Ware
Once inside the locker room, Ware saw his pads, but not his No. 94 jersey.
"That didn't feel right to me," he said.
He quickly got the jersey, put it over his shoulder pads and started getting dressed to play.
"I asked him, 'What are you doing, dude?'" Spears said. "He said he was giving it a go, and I was like, 'D-Ware, take that s--- off, man.' ... [With his stature and having been medically cleared], he was in that position where he could make that decision for himself. But he starts saying, 'Only third downs,' like he's legitimizing it."
On Sept. 2, 1996, Maurer had taken care of running back Emmitt Smith, who had suffered a neck injury diving over the pile in a loss to the Chicago Bears. Smith spent the night in a Chicago hospital but tests were negative. Six days later, he had 82 yards on 24 carries and caught a touchdown pass in a 27-0 win against the New York Giants.
"Different scenarios, but once again you're trying to cover your bases and make sure everything is safe for a player to return," Maurer said.
MEDICALLY CLEARED TO play, Ware needed some more reassurance. He called over powerful fullback Deon Anderson during pregame warmups.
"I said, 'Hey, give me a little [head-butt]' -- and Deon tried to knock me out," Ware said. "I told him to hit me one more time, and I said, 'All right, if I can take that hit, I'm fine.'"
But he would not start. Rookie Victor Butler did. It would be the only game Wade did not start in the first eight years of his career. The plan was to limit him mostly to third-down snaps.
It did not matter how much he played. His being there had a huge effect on the Cowboys.
"It felt like Superman was back in the building," quarterback Tony Romo said. "You knew as long as DeMarcus Ware was out there that we were going to make it difficult on the opposing offense and quarterback. He's one of the few guys that I've seen that had the ability to give the entire team confidence that if he's out there, we're going to be fine."
Sean Payton, the Saints coach in 2009, was the Cowboys' assistant head coach/passing game coordinator when they selected Ware in 2005. He saw Ware dominate future Hall of Fame tackle Walter Jones with a sack, two forced fumbles, an interception, a fumble recovery and a pass deflection in the first half of his second preseason game and record three sacks in the second-to-last game of his rookie season.
"I think that game was his defining moment because it symbolized his ability to work at a deficit and still be able to produce. I'm telling you, he was not fully healthy." Teammate Marcus Spears on Ware's return to action
"I don't think many people in the building thought DeMarcus was going to play," Romo said, "and I know Sean Payton didn't think he'd play either because I've talked to him about it multiple times since then."
Payton, whose Saints would win Super Bowl XLIV six weeks later against the Indianapolis Colts, said Ware taught him a lesson he still carries with him.
"In our third-down plan, we always talk about protections, who we're nudging, who we're handling, and [Ware] didn't practice and didn't practice, so we were sleepy, starting with me, with the help we were giving our left tackle [Jermon Bushrod]," Payton said.
"Then here we are at game time and he runs out [there] ... It served me well that season because we go through the playoffs, advance to the Super Bowl, and all two weeks long we hear questions about whether [defensive end Dwight] Freeney is going to play or not. And I told our whole offense, 'I don't care if he doesn't practice a snap in two weeks, we're preparing for Freeney.' ... We made sure because we learned that lesson the hard way. Maybe one of [Ware's] favorite moments and one of my worst."
WARE PLAYED JUST four snaps in the first quarter, mostly because the Romo-led offense was on the field for so long, putting up a 14-0 Cowboys lead that held the Saints to 10 offensive snaps. Ware played nine more in the second quarter and forced a fumble on a sack of Brees that the Cowboys turned into a field goal for a 17-3 halftime lead.
"Bushrod was a Pro Bowler and [Ware] is out there playing with no neck," Spears said. "I think that game was his defining moment because it symbolized his ability to work at a deficit and still be able to produce. I'm telling you, he was not fully healthy."
Ware played nine snaps in the third quarter, but in the fourth quarter, the Saints cut the deficit to 24-17. The Cowboys could have iced the game with a field goal, but Nick Folk's attempt hit the upright and Brees had the ball with 2:16 to play.
"When Brees is out there, you're never feeling good about anything at the end of the game," Bobby Carpenter said.
Ware played eight of the 11 snaps on New Orleans' last drive on the right side of the line. Like Rivers the previous week, Brees knew where No. 94 was. With 12 seconds left and the ball at the Dallas 42, Ware went to work on Bushrod one last time.
"[Bushrod is] one of those guys if you stab him, he sits down, and it's hard to get around him," Ware said. "The whole game, I'm doing the stab technique and thinking, 'Why am I not beating him?' Usually when I power a guy, I power him back into the quarterback. So with Bushrod, I figured if I can push him, he's going to sit down, and then I can dip, and go around the corner because he's going to stop his feet."
The plan worked perfectly. Ware sacked Brees for the second time and forced his second fumble, with the ball ending up in Ratliff's arms.
"That's the time we realized D-Ware is not like any of us," Spears said, "and he's better than all of us."
Said Phillips, "We looked at each other and said, 'Yeah, that's DeMarcus.'"
The Saints' undefeated streak ended, and the Cowboys' playoff push began, as they did not allow a point in their final two regular-season games to win the NFC East. They beat the Philadelphia Eagles 34-14 in the wild-card round of the playoffs, but the season would end disappointingly in the divisional round with a 34-3 loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
Fourteen years later, Ware is set for immortality in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and there is no way six minutes can do justice to that six-day span.
"The Saints were 13-0 and could have easily gone 16-0 had they won that game," Romo said. "But they forgot. They forgot we had DeMarcus Ware."
ESPN NFL Nation reporter Jeff Legwold contributed to this story.