Dotson's 2000 season ended on a Monday night in Carolina.
It won't be easy, but Santana Dotson will be back.
Faced with the greatest challenge of his nine-year career, the Packers' starting defensive tackle now is taking on a relatively new opponent -- injury.
In the November 27 matchup with the Carolina Panthers, Dotson suffered a partial tear of his right quadriceps tendon, which joins the muscle directly above the knee to the bone itself. He underwent corrective surgery later in the week and was placed on the team's injured reserve list. Since, he has begun a grueling rehabilitation process that will require a minimum of eight months to complete.
Until last season, Dotson had been somewhat of an iron man, never missing a game due to injury in his four years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or his time in Green Bay, which began in the Packers' Super Bowl season of 1996.
But in the third game of 1999, the Baylor graduate's improbable streak came to an end when he pinched a nerve in his shoulder and was sidelined for four contests. While painful and debilitating for the remainder of the year, the "stinger" still did not require surgery or the variety of treatment he must now undergo for his current condition.
Before the 2001 schedule begins, he will spend hundreds of hours inside the team's training facility at Lambeau Field doing a variety of leg exercises. Much of that time will be spent in a pool, where Dotson can regain strength in the leg without subjecting it to the pounding of out-of-water workouts.
Even with foreknowledge of the next several months, he nonetheless considers himself a fortunate player.
"Of course I wish it didn't happen, but the position that I play in the trenches down in and down out, it's really remarkable that somebody could go that long and not have a serious injury that requires surgery," says Dotson. "So I look at it like that. In the opinion of all our doctors, I'll be back. The tendon is going to attach itself as good or better than it was before, and I'll be full speed. I just look at it as a temporary setback or building block to come back and work even harder and be ready for my target date of August or September."
Before the injury, he was having one of his best years as a pro, compiling 6 sacks in 12 games to lead the team. He also made 58 total tackles, which ranked second for the season among Green Bay's defensive linemen, behind defensive end John Theirry's 62 stops, and sixth overall.
But the numbers are not the only aspect that will be missed, according to Head Coach Mike Sherman.
"You know, Santana Dotson's value is not just as a player but as a leader on our defense," insists the coach. "I thought he was having an extraordinary year. The pressure he was applying inside (on the line) allowed us an opportunity to get after quarterbacks.
"You lose someone like Santana, that's a big shot."
The void on the defensive line left by Dotson's absence was magnified when, amazingly, rookie tackle Steve Warren suffered an identical injury a week later against Chicago. Many, including the elder lineman, are scratching their heads after back-to-back occurrences of an injury that rarely happens once in a season.
"Really, I try to lead by example, but that wasn't what I had in mind," says Dotson, only half kidding. "It's a different and strange injury, because the majority of the times with professional athletes the knee ligaments like the ACL and the MCL are weaker than the tendons. Most of the time you injure those before the tendon gives way. It was real strange, especially a week later for Steve to go down with the same exact injury to the exact same leg."
The positive of any injury is the opportunity presented to the next player on the bench, and the vacancies created by Dotson and Warren have meant more significant roles for linemen such as Cletidus Hunt, Billy Lyon and David Bowens.
Dotson sees the younger players' development as an encouraging sign and thinks the unit's immediate future is far brighter than critics originally projected.
"I think we'll be much stronger," he projects. "We've had problems with injuries all year. Being a defensive lineman means you have to play hurt. You've got folks like Russell Maryland and John Thierry, they've been beat up and banged up and fought through it. That's just part of being a defensive lineman in the NFL. Players like Cletidus Hunt have really stepped up and given us tremendous depth. He's done a great job filling in for me and filling in for Vonnie Holliday when he got hurt. Billy Lyon also has done a great job filling in for the two of us.
"What that's going to mean is that when we come back in training camp, we're going to have that much more depth. Going into this season, everybody was talking about us as though we were the weaker sister of everything. We've grown together a lot this year and plan on being even stronger next year."
Much of that will rely on the status of Dotson's quadriceps tendon, for it helps to hold up one of the Packers' most rugged, durable and tenacious defenders.
His 10th professional season will be one of promise and a continuation of a year cut short, and Dotson warns that he won't miss a beat.
"I plan on being back as strong and even more determined, picking up where I left off," he says. "I always put a lot of pressure on myself to come in and be a leader and a playmaker in the defense, and I expect to do nothing less. As soon as I start slowing down, then I'll start thinking about putting up my helmet, but until then, I plan on doing much of the same."