It wasnt up at Lehigh on the grass practice fields during endless training camp practices that Cornelius Ingram realized he was finally all the way back.
No, it was on the hardwood gym floor in Gainesville, Fla., during spirited basketball games with a bunch of other locked-out NFL players from the University of Florida the Pouncey twins, Percey Harvin, Louis Murphy and Riley Cooper that Ingram finally felt right.
Once I dunked, Ingram said with a laugh. Then I dunked a couple more times.
Thanks to three years of knee problems, Ingram hasnt played a meaningful football game since his junior year at Florida back in the fall of 2007.
He missed 2008 with a torn ACL, then suffered another ACL tear in his rookie camp with the Eagles in 2009. He was back in camp with the Eagles last summer but was still hobbled and released before the season, although he did return for two stints on the practice squad in November and December.
Now, Ingram is back again. And this time hes healthy.
The third-year tight end, a fifth-round pick in 2009, has resurrected himself after three lost seasons. Hes got his speed back. Hes got his athleticism back. Hes got his game back.
He never lost his smile.
Hes one of the most positive people I know, said Cooper, his teammate at Florida and again now with the Eagles.
But now Ingram has truly got something to smile about. Hes still fighting an uphill battle to make the team, but at least he has a fighting chance.
I dont even worry about the circumstances or the situation, Ingram said. I can honestly say this is truly the best Ive felt since my junior year. No hitching in my routes, Im able to come off the ball full speed and do everything with no limitations. Everything else will take care of itself, as long as I stay healthy.
I try not to even worry about anything else. I focus on one thing every day and try to get better at it, and thats most important to me.
Theres a good reason the Eagles have been so patient with Ingram. When healthy, Ingram is a beast. He caught 34 passes for 508 yards and seven TDs for the Gators as a junior, and at 6-foot-4, 250 pounds with terrific speed and athleticism, hes a natural down-the-field tight end.
He just hasnt been healthy. After dazzling everybody the first month of his rookie training camp at Lehigh, he tore his left ACL, the same one that cost him his senior year at Florida. Its taken until now to get it right.
To be honest, the lockout actually did me some justice, Ingram said. I was training every day back in Gainesville. Started back playing basketball a lot. When I started dunking, that gave me a little bit more confidence that Im really back. Because before that I wouldnt even step on the basketball court. I was afraid to even try to take a layup.
We trained every day, we hooped every day, and all that confidence came back and now there are no limitations. ... I knew once I get back on the field Id be fine. I was running routes back at home as well, I was doing bag drills, but once I got to camp and started to make plays and move around like I did my junior year in college, I knew I was back. Im happy. Im very happy.
With starter Brent Celek, second-year pro Clay Harbor and nine-year veteran Donald Lee all at tight end, there doesnt seem to be any room for Ingram on the 53-man roster.
But hes at least worked himself into the picture. And his coaches have noticed.
Outstanding, young, talented man, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. Hes been through really two major injuries and he just hasnt been on the field much with our offensive structure in the last couple of years. Hes having an outstanding camp. He really flashes brilliance. So now hes got to play at that high level on a consistent basis.
Ingram didnt play a lot in the Eagles first preseason game, against the Ravens last week, but he should play a little more Thursday night against the Steelers in Pittsburgh. He actually has never caught a pass in his three preseasons with the Eagles and last played in a meaningful game on New Years Day 2008, when Florida lost to Michigan in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando.
Since then? Nothing except 3 12 years of rehab. And waiting.
Its been tough, Ingram said. Anytime you want to compete and you want to be on the field and you have to sit out because of an injury, it hurts. Especially when you see other guys on your team being successful and you want to be part of it. It hurts a lot.
But going in, a lot of people whove been through back-to-back ACL injuries, talked to me and basically told me it takes up to two years sometimes. So its one of those things where I just had to be patient. Ive always been confident ... Id get back to where I wanted to be if I just did what the trainers here said. It was a long journey.
Ingram has no swelling anymore in his knees. He doesnt even ice them anymore after practice. Doesnt think about them during practice.
I go out basically with no worries, he said. Just try to play every play full-speed.
Cooper, the Eagles second-year receiver, worked out constantly with Ingram in Gainesville during the lockout.
He loves this, Cooper said. He loves the game of football, and nothing was going to stop him from getting back healthy. When we were in Gainesville, hed be the first one at the stadium ready to rock n roll. He really wants to do this.
Hes been unfortunate with his knee, and hes got this thing that hes injury-prone, but hes never had a sprained ankle or anything, just this knee. Its really just one injury that hes had to deal with for a long time. But hes got a great work ethic and hes ready to go, and everybodys seeing now how far hes come.
Ingram knows the numbers. Hes the fourth tight end right now. The Eagles will keep three.
He doesnt care. He doesnt worry about the numbers. His only worry was his knee, and thats no longer an issue.
I dont even think about it, he said. Whenever I get my opportunity, I definitely have to take advantage of it. Thats just how this business goes. The most important thing is that Im healthy and the coaches know that Im healthy.
Im always positive about the situation. Something will definitely work out.
E-mail Reuben Frank at firstname.lastname@example.org