Ronnie Brown just does not stop smiling.
He smiles when he talks about what he still hopes to accomplish in football. He smiles about the prospects of what this NFL season will bring. He even smiles about practice. During training camp. In hot, steamy, insufferable weather.
Some might wonder how he can maintain that ear-to-ear grin when faced with coming back from yet another season-ending injury. After all, Brown could easily have been discouraged after last year and no one would blame him. For the second time in three years, Brown needed major surgery on his right lower extremity. In Week 7 of 2007, Brown tore his right ACL. He returned for the 2008 season, even making it to the Pro Bowl, but the following season again ended prematurely. After starting the first nine games of 2009, Brown suffered a Lisfranc injury to his right foot (a midfoot injury that resulted from a player falling on the back of his foot). He underwent surgery in November to stabilize the injured region. After a gradual progression of weight-bearing and other rehabilitative activities, Brown had a procedure to remove some hardware in June. By late July, he was medically cleared for all training camp activity.
Still, Lisfranc injuries can be tricky. It is not uncommon for athletes who undergo this type of surgery to encounter ups and downs as they try to increase their activity. Returning to running, then returning to pivoting and twisting places increased demand on the midfoot, sometimes resulting in increased pain. Lingering discomfort requires forced rest and a scaling back of activity, potentially leading to a delayed return to competition. Medical clearance is just the beginning; progressing through each level of activity without incident is another matter.
Brown's performance in training camp has done much to alleviate those concerns. He has participated fully in all activities as if his foot were a non-issue. If his efforts on the practice field are any indication, Brown appears ready for the season to start tomorrow.
When I visited Miami Dolphins practice, I saw him move fluidly both during position drills and 11-on-11. One play in particular caught my eye. Brown caught a simple screen pass and then made a sharp dodge to evade a defender (and yes, he made him miss). That move allowed him to burst forward untouched and he continued to run out the play for extra yards, even after the whistle blew. In fact, every time Brown touched the ball, he added an extra 20 or 30 yards of running after the play was dead. That combination of mobility, speed and intensity is something that was not quite there when I visited him in 2008 training camp following his ACL reconstruction.
And then there's that smile.
Maybe Brown is smiling now because he has not encountered any setbacks. In fact, Brown told me "I don't even feel like I had an injury." He acknowledges some occasional soreness but notes this is "nothing like the ACL." By comparison, this seems to have been a far easier recovery process for Brown. "I had to deal with [the ACL] pretty much throughout the season, but with this I feel like I'm already over it and I'm just ready to get going. Ready for games to start."
Brown wasted no time getting his foot wet, so to speak, seeing action for 15 plays in rainy and muddy conditions during the team's first preseason contest Saturday. Dolphins coach Tony Sparano certainly noticed the difference in how Brown is bouncing back from this injury. On Monday, Sparano told reporters he was pleased Brown could come away from that first preseason game with some confidence. "When Ronnie came off with a knee [injury], it was a much slower process ... right now we're so much further ahead in that part of the recovery." Sparano said. "I really believe Ronnie came out of the game and wasn't really thinking about it at all."
When I asked Brown about his coach's comments and how he felt about his first preseason outing after he averaged four yards per carry, his smile broadened. "It felt good," said Brown, "outside of being in the mud the whole time. There wasn't any soreness or anything that was prohibiting me from doing anything."
I asked Brown what fantasy football owners should expect from him this season. He became very animated but kept his answer simple: "A lot!" Brown added, "My goal is to improve each season. I feel like I still have a long way to go as far as yards, touchdowns, the whole overall game."
But what about all the people who suggest he's injury-prone? Brown had a response for them as well. "I don't look at it like that. I do look at it as I had a couple of unfortunate injuries. I just try to take everything in stride and look at it in a positive way. With the foot thing, I had to come back from rehab but at the same time, I didn't take as many hits as I would have playing throughout the season."
In finding the silver lining to his injury cloud, Brown makes a good point. Less contact last season means less overall physical punishment and perhaps fresher legs in 2010. Nonetheless, while Brown projects a positive attitude, he recognizes that the only way to erase the perception that he is injury-prone is to actually stay on the field. And he used that as incentive during a long rehab. As Brown shared with me, "One of the motivating factors, unfortunately, is people kind of doubt you. You feel like you have a little bit to prove. I feel like I'm one of the best running backs in the league as long as I stay healthy, but the key part of that is staying healthy and being in for each game."
Seeing Brown move as well as he did on the practice field and hearing him truly excited, upbeat and eager to engage in competition certainly indicated that he is ready for the season. I came away from camp impressed not only by his physical performance but also (and perhaps more importantly) by his mental readiness to get back into competition.
Perhaps the smile on Brown's face has to do with what lies ahead.
"I'm just looking forward to having a good season," said Brown, "hopefully the best season yet." If Brown can get through an injury-free season and put up the type of numbers that he's capable of, his coaches, teammates, fans and fantasy owners will all be smiling right along with him.