It hurt to see promising young defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford go down with a torn Achilles tendon, but Church was proof that a player could come back strong from that season-ending injury.
Minutes after Crawford tumbled to the grass without any contact, much like Church did in a Week 3 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season, the strong safety made a diving interception of a deflected pass, rolled to his feet and ran into the end zone.
“It felt unbelievable,” Church said. “(Running back Phillip) Tanner kind of assisted me on it, but it felt unbelievable just to get my hands back on the ball.”
Church, 25, who earned a starting job with a terrific training camp last year, acknowledges that he initially feared that his NFL career was over. The Cowboys, however, had enough confidence in Church to sign him to a four-year contract worth as much as $12.9 million, earning the front office a lot of criticism.
That contract will be a bargain if Church’s performances in the first couple of practices during this camp are a sign of things to come.
There is no indication that Church has lost a step. In fact, he’s a little lighter than last season at 218 pounds and might be faster. He earned praise from secondary coach Jerome Henderson after running step for step with Miles Austin on a deep corner route during Monday’s practice.
Church entered camp as the unquestioned starter at strong safety after impressing during organized team activities and the minicamp. The fact that he was able to participate in the offseason sessions without pain is pretty remarkable in itself, with Church crediting the athletic training staff for helping him return to full health in only six months.
“Play every play like it’s your last means so much more to me, because I thought that was my last play with my Achilles injury,” Church said. “But I was able to fight through it, and now I’m back. I feel like I’m 100 percent back.”