- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- On the first day of October, his surgically-fixed forearm healing and his football season still in question, Nate Burleson went to Ford Field, stood up in front of a room honoring him from recovering from another injury and then looked down.
The cast was his reminder. He was injured again while accepting the Ed Block Courage Award. So while he made a happy face and said he would return that day, inside, his emotions were much more raw.
“Yeah, 100 percent,” Burleson said. “I was appreciative of the moment because I know how much that award means but in the back of my head, I’m thinking, I’m up here with a cast on which means I’m basically injured again.
“I hate the concept of that in my head, that’s not what I want to be labeled as. I want to finish strong. I want to finish as a Lion strong. I don’t want people to say, "Well, Nate was good. When he played.' I got a chance to do that if I can come back, play at a high level and finish my career strong, not get injured on or off the field.”
His return, while much closer, is still a bit of a question. Burleson ran routes against a defense for the first time Monday, an indication he is coming closer to a return. He also feels better about his own health, saying he’s lighter than he was before the injury.
But Detroit’s current success -- 6-3 and leading the NFC North -- might actually keep Burleson from returning too soon. The Lions’ success gives Burleson more time to heal without the pressure of his team absolutely needing him to win.
“The way the team is playing, there’s an ease in my spirit that I don’t have to rush as of right now,” Burleson said. “That’s day-to-day, week-to-week. Sunday turns out great again, it’d give me another week to heal up.”
When Burleson does return, the only thing that will change will be what he’s able to do on the field. He’s been a consistent locker room presence during each week with his injury. He has been with the team during games, giving talks in the huddle before games and at halftime and generally being around as a pick-me-up person.
And on the field, his disappearance from the lineup opened up opportunity for Kris Durham to see more snaps and consistency, so now the Lions have another receiving option when Burleson returns.
When he returns, his skill will be the biggest change. Nothing when it comes to what Detroit is calling, either.
“Any time Nate is on the field, we’re a better football team,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “He’s a guy that’s played in this offense for a lot of years and I have a lot of games under my belt with him and a lot of experience with him so whenever we get him back, that’ll be a plus for us.”
In some ways, Burleson’s future relies on what he is able to do when he does return. He has one season left on his contract with the Lions and at 32 years old, wants to stay in Detroit the rest of his career, however long that may be.
But he realizes this is his second straight season with a major injury -- he broke his leg last season -- and in order for the coaching staff and front office to feel comfortable with him in the future, he has to play like he did prior to the injury this season -- where he led Detroit in receptions through three games.
He wants to play well enough when he returns that he proves he can still be an effective complement to Calvin Johnson as a target for Stafford. And he knows there is pressure there.
“That’s why I’m not shying away from it,” Burleson said. “I’m not going to hide away from the fact that I need to play well. Not just OK. I can’t just come and do OK. Then there’s going to be some issues that are going to be handled.
“I want to finish my career as a Lion. I don’t want to uproot the family and go get a house and get this, that and the third. I’m just saying as far as playing for another team. I want to be able to say this is the last team that I play for and on a good note. That’s the pressure I’m putting on myself. I don’t need anyone to tell me that.”
He doesn’t need to know that. Even before his injury, he knew his career was in the latter stages. Now, he just has an idea of what he needs to do to keep it going as long as possible.
Return. Then thrive. That simple.