FOXBOROUGH - He’s trying not to count the days; he really is.
Kevin Faulk is well aware that the potential end to his time off the physically unable to perform list is drawing tantalizingly close, that he’ll finally get the chance to pull on his pads again and do the only job he’s ever loved: play football.
It has been nearly 13 months since Faulk was knocked out of bounds by Jets cornerback Drew Coleman at the end of an 8-yard carry, Coleman hitting Faulk’s right knee in just the right spot to damage his anterior cruciate ligament.
And just like that, Faulk’s 12th season with the Patriots was over.
In the days immediately following his injury, Faulk sat at Bill Belichick’s desk and told his coach that he had every intention of returning for a 13th season.
Little did he know at the time, the months that followed would test Faulk unlike few challenges he’d faced as a player.
Sitting at his locker at Gillette Stadium recently, a simple cross hanging from one of the hooks above his head (a note implores others not to hang anything over the cross), Faulk was asked what the last year has been like.
“Difficult. In a lot of different ways, a lot of different areas, but difficulty comes with life,’’ he said. “It’s how you respond after that. I can recall the week after I got hurt, I was really down, I wasn’t really myself, being ugly to a lot of people, and I realized that. I came back the next week and was like, ‘Wow.’ Apologized to everybody that I affiliated with that week and was like, ‘Hey, look, I’m sorry. I was down.’
“But it’s the fact of understanding that the situation you’re in might be a bad thing at the time, but what about later on down the road? It may not be that bad. You may have to wait, and the thing is, you may not know how long you’ve got to wait, but you may have to. But are you willing to sacrifice all that waiting time to see what’s ahead, what God has in store for you next that’s positive?’’
The time away from the game has taught Faulk patience, and given him a chance to strengthen his relationships with his two daughters and son. They’ve always been close, but during football season, he doesn’t have the opportunity to be around as much as he was last fall. It was something akin to post-football life, and wife Latisha joked that Faulk seemed to be enjoying it.
He dived into his rehabilitation work, leaning on the lesson he was taught long ago, that hard work would get him the majority of things he’d desire in life. That’s not to say that there weren’t times - that there aren’t still times - when Faulk wonders whether he played his last down.
“Oh, yes,’’ he said. “I still go to some games right now . . . home games I look up in the stands and be like, dang, I might have played my last game in this stadium last year, not even knowing it, but I do think about it. Thought about retiring - a couple of times - during the offseason.’’
So, why not retire?
“Football guy. It’s in here,’’ he said, tapping his chest. “I knew the one thing I wanted to do this year, and that was play football. No matter what it was going to take, what I was going to have to do, I wanted to play football. And that was my mind-set. When all the stuff came up about retiring . . . it was close. But then it was like, ‘Kevin, what do you want to do?’ I want to play football. That’s what I do, I play football.’’
Just before the lockout began and teams were prohibited from contacting players, Faulk got a phone call. It was Belichick, who told Faulk he’d have a place on the roster when the new season began.
Belichick downplayed the conversation earlier this week, saying simply that he had confidence that the versatile running back would be able to help the team this year. But the call meant a great deal to Faulk.
“It solidified the respect factor between me and him,’’ Faulk said. “To get that phone call, you know, when the lockout was about to come and he was like, ‘Hey, look, I want you on my football team in 2011’ . . . that’s all I needed to hear. That set the wheels in motion for me.’’
Since re-signing with the Patriots, he has been at the facility every day, taking part in meetings, going to the games. It is another show of the status he has within the organization that Faulk is allowed to travel to road games with the team, a rare move for Belichick.
“He was a captain for us and I think he has that kind of leadership and respect on the team,’’ Belichick said. “Obviously he couldn’t really have that [captain] role this year just because he hasn’t been able to participate, but I think his presence at the game is good. We have some younger backs, Shane [Vereen] and [Stevan] Ridley, and I think his presence, his experience . . . as a player there’s definitely value to that. I think he’s just a positive influence on our entire team, not just the backs but all of us.’’
Running backs coach Ivan Fears, who has become much more than a position coach to Faulk after more than a decade working so closely, says Faulk isn’t just any player.
“He’s got an awful big reputation with these guys. I mean, he’s a 13-year guy that’s kind of special around here,’’ Fears said. “So he’s not your average guy. You’ve got to love what he’s done for this program and what he’s done for us and how he’s fought back from injury to get where he is now. I’ll never call him the average guy around here. We’re not going to treat him like the average guy.’’
Belichick isn’t surprised that one of the reasons Faulk has been in all of the meetings and wanted to be at all of the games is because he doesn’t want to miss anything - doesn’t want to miss a call or a coverage, something that might come up down the line when he’s on the field again.
And as the elder statesman of the Patriots, the only player who has been in Foxborough longer than Belichick has been head coach, he also feels a sense of ownership. “This is my team,’’ Faulk said. “This is the team I’ve been with for a long time.’’
The window for Faulk to start practicing can open next week, and while there is no indication that is when he’ll get the green light, Faulk says he’s ready.
Belichick says there is a place for Faulk in the offense, and he “sees no reason’’ why Faulk shouldn’t be able to come back based on what he’s seen.
And Faulk is just itching for the day when he gets to stop watching his team, and instead start playing with his team.
“I just want to play football,’’ he said. “I just want to go get hit. I just want to hit somebody. That’s it.’’