Phillips is thrilled to be back in Dallas

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.-- Throughout his never-ending rehab, during all the flights back and forth from New Jersey, Alabama and Florida, whenever his patience was tested -- and it was tested often -- Kenny Phillips often thought about Dallas.

It was there last year on Sept. 20 that Phillips authored the finest game of his young career. He practically single-handedly ruined Jerry Jones' grand opening of his Dallas palace with two interceptions, one of which caromed off Jason Witten's foot, and 10 tackles in what was his introduction to a national audience during a Sunday night Giants victory over the Cowboys.

"I never forgot the game because that was the last game I played in," Phillips said of the 33-31 win.

Three days after the best game of his professional life, Phillips was handed his greatest setback when he discovered that his second NFL season was over after just two games. The patellofemoral arthritis -- a deterioration of the cartilage between the kneecap and femur -- in his left knee worsened and required microfracture surgery.

Over a year later, the Giants are returning to Dallas and nobody will be more thrilled to be back than Phillips, who has not missed a game this season despite a degenerative condition in his knee that was considered by some as career-threatening.

The Giants safety, who has one interception, has started in all six games and has even overcome a sprained MCL to the same knee, which he suffered a few weeks ago.

"I tried to keep the past in the past," Phillips said. "But it has been a long haul. I am definitely not going to forget how much it took to get back to this point."

Phillips said the biggest pain he felt during his comeback hasn't been in his knee but rather in his head. The road back is one that is filled with speed bumps, yield signs and red lights, and Phillips' patience has been tested like never before.

For several months, Phillips was constantly told what he couldn't do yet and how he had to take everything excruciatingly slow. He couldn't even run for about six months after the September surgery.

The Giants were concerned enough that they signed veteran safeties Antrel Rolle and Deon Grant in the offseason while drafting another, LSU's Chad Jones, in the third round.

"[The rehab process] was mind-boggling because you never know what to expect," said Rolle, who is one of Phillips' close friends and trains with him during the offseason in Miami. "You never know how you are going to perform or even when you are going to be healthy. You continue to rehab every day and night. It has been very stressful. It has been a full-time job."

Rolle let Phillips borrow his Accelerated Recovery Performance machine, which uses electrical stimulation to help speed recovery. Phillips uses it every night so he can stay healthy.

While Phillips works daily to keep his knee in playing shape, teammates check on him to make sure he remains sane.

"I know the mental battles you struggle with," said cornerback Terrell Thomas, who watched Phillips travel often to Alabama, where Dr. James Andrews operated on the safety's knee. "He works out every day here taking care of his knee. It is not something that is going to be fixed this year. It is something he has to do continuously for the rest of his career."

After the two-interception performance against Dallas, Phillips' career looked like it was going to take off straight to the Pro Bowl.

"I felt like I was growing into my own," the 2008 first-round pick out of Miami said. "I felt good on the field, I was able to see things I didn't see before."

But even as he had his best game, Phillips said he didn't really enjoy it the way many would think because his knee was constantly on his mind. He didn't feel a lot of pain at the time, but he knew his condition would worsen. He just didn't know it would happen so fast.

"I wouldn't call it pain but you can't celebrate because the knee might give out," Phillips said, laughing, when looking back on his interceptions. "I don't want to say [I was] worried but it was in the back of my mind. There were still a lot of things that I couldn't do as far as movement and it was kind of hard to go out there and have fun."

Thomas knew Phillips would be down after the safety learned his season was over. So the cornerback joked that Phillips sure knew how to go out with a bang.

"I told him, 'Man, you are the only player I know that will have a game like that, then retire. You did that for attention, I know,'" Thomas cracked. "It was a career-threatening injury but he never retired."

Now, Phillips returns to Dallas steadily regaining the form that helped him pick off Tony Romo twice a year ago. New defensive coordinator Perry Fewell likes to use Rolle, Grant and Phillips together on the field often, and the three-safety look has helped the Giants become the second-ranked defense in the NFL.

Last week against Detroit, Phillips displayed his range by coming over to the right sideline and putting a huge hit on Calvin Johnson to force an incomplete pass. He had seven tackles and two passes defended on the day.

Following every game this season, Rolle asks Phillips how he feels. Phillips told Rolle that the Detroit game was "the best he has felt in a while."

The good feelings should continue Monday night.

"Great feeling," Phillips said of being back in Dallas. "Especially if we win. Real great. I feel good. I'm healthy and that is the biggest thing. I know if I'm healthy, I'll play well."

Ohm Youngmisuk covers the Giants for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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