It bothered James Rodgers hearing and reading about all the speculation as to whether he could come back from a gruesome knee injury.
He was asked by random people, then there was the media and fan message boards wondering if he would give it up or just not return to the Oregon State football team.
Rodgers was a true senior last season and graduated with a speech communications degree in June. The only reason to apply for the medical hardship waiver to come back for 2011 was because he wanted to play again.
His intent was always to come back and finish his career strong. Plus, he hopes to show NFL scouts he can come back and be as productive as before.
“Of course, that’s the No. 1 question I’ll be asked, but that was never in my head,” Rodgers said of not coming back. “I just worked hard and let everything else take care of itself.”
Still, two surgeries to reconstruct his left knee that was damaged Oct. 6 in Arizona is a lot to recover from.
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The first surgery was in late October, with the last one in late February. They were done in stages to help the recovery process.
Rodgers needed the knee fully healed before he could start working out again, so he watched spring practice on crutches.
He was antsy to get going, and then hit rehab hard during the summer back home near Houston.
“It was tough knowing you can’t be on the field,” Rodgers said. “Overall, I kept myself around positive people and being positive about everything. When someone felt sorry for me I didn’t want to hear it.”
Michael Lewis, an NFL player who is also Rodgers’ uncle, helped him with his rehab while he stayed in shape during the NFL lockout.
It was a slow and steady process with the focus on flexibility, agility, speed and leg strength.
He started running routes two weeks before returning to OSU for training camp, which started Monday.
“It’s not real tough,” Rodgers said of the rehab work. “It’s just me working. I like to work hard, and it’s something I have to do.”
Coach Mike Riley says Rodgers is ahead of schedule, but won’t set any timetables for his return.
He considers any contributions by Rodgers this season as icing on the cake.
“He’ll do more each day, and we’ll see where he’s at,” Riley said.
Part of his rehab was mental as well as physical. Rodgers changed his number from 8 to 1, the number his brother, Jacquizz, wore at OSU before heading to the NFL.
He says it was because he just wanted a change. That change also separated him from his past. When he last wore No. 8 he was laying on the Arizona Stadium ground, a victim of an unlucky accident being tackled deep in the end zone.
“He just told me if I’m going to wear that number, wear it with passion,” Rodgers said.
Rodgers has yet to do any special teams work as a punt or kickoff returner. He did individual drills and ran plays without defenders on him the first five days of camp.
On Saturday morning, he ran routes against defenders for the first time.
After an hour of work he watches the rest of practice. Rodgers knows the offense.
Training camp for him is to become more comfortable with his knee.
“I didn’t feel that much soreness out there,” Rodgers said. “I’m focusing on the technique.”
The most important part of Rodgers’ comeback is being on the field. Playing the game has been part of his life since he was a child.
For him, being sidelined hurt more than the initial injury and surgeries.
“It felt really good to be out there with my teammates, just laughing and being with them,” Rodgers said. “I was just happy to hear I was free to do what I can.”
His teammates were happy to see him, too. Just when quarterback Ryan Katz was starting to come into his own last year, Rodgers went down.
The season began to unravel as the entire offensive dynamic changed.
If Rodgers can come close to his old self, Katz will have a game-breaking target again.
“It was good to see him out there,” Katz said. “He ran some routes, like he has been doing the last two weeks of the summer. He looked good. I can see him progressing from here.”
Rodgers’ long-term plan is to be ready for his shot at the NFL next spring. He is an interesting prospect with his return ability in addition to being a receiver.
NFL Draft Scout considers him the 47th best prospect among 325 receivers ranked, while NFL Draft Blitz has him at No. 21.
That will improve once he proves he’s back and on the way to past form.
“I’m just working hard to get where I need to be, and when the coaches think I’m ready to go,” Rodgers said. “It’s all about what the coaches think. We have a strict plan the coaches have with the doctors.”