Physical Recovery Going Strong, Mental Battles To Come For Underwood

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Eight months of rehabilitation on his surgically repaired right knee have Marviel Underwood physically right where he needs to be at this stage of his recovery.

Psychologically, however, there are two barriers Underwood will have to overcome as the off-season continues for the third-year safety. One of those he's facing now, while another will confront him later this summer.

First, Underwood will have to resist the temptation to push the knee too much as it continues to feel better and better. During the off-season strength and conditioning program, he's doing all the movement and agility drills the other defensive backs are doing, but with the May mini-camp a little more than a month away, it's tempting to think about getting back into full-scale football work right away.

That wouldn't be prudent, no matter how badly Underwood wants to resume his eye-catching play of last summer, which abruptly ended on the defense's first preseason possession at San Diego on Aug. 12 with an awkward twist of his knee.

"If we had to go today and play in the season, I believe I could go and play," Underwood said. "That's how I feel. But I'm still taking it slow, and it's hard to take it slow."

That's common for players whose rehab is going as well as Underwood's. Head Coach Mike McCarthy noted before players returned for the off-season program that if there was one guy he always saw in the weight room, it was Underwood.

His dedication has been admirable, but with training camp still three months away, the coaches and medical staff don't want to rush anything. McCarthy has said getting Underwood back on the field for June OTAs, let alone May mini-camp, might be "pushing it," and the start of training camp is probably the more likely target.

"As I've talked to the doctor, he says they're going to gradually get into it," Underwood said. "I'm doing so well now he doesn't want me to push it and mess it up again. He'd rather wait, get that good 11, 12 months in and see how I feel then. He said if I really had to, I could go, and I feel like that also. But if the doctor and coach say to wait, I'm going to wait. I'm not going to push it."

Whenever that first practice arrives for Underwood, be it sometime in June or late July, he'll then face the second mental hurdle - putting the worry of another injury behind him.

Linebacker Brady Poppinga, who recovered from a similar knee injury last year, recalled how tough that was for him, even as he remarkably returned to the field less than nine months after the actual injury.

"When I was getting ready to do my first practice, I felt great," Poppinga said. "Then I thought back to all the work and dedication and time I'd put into this rehab, and I realized I could go out there in this practice and have the same freak accident that caused this injury, and start all over again.

"I struggled with that, and I don't know how much time, but I remember saying, 'I can't think that way, I don't care.' It's not that I didn't want to be reckless either, but I couldn't think that way, and it was this force I had to fight against that was psychological."

{sportsad300}For Poppinga, ultimately deciding he wasn't going to think about or worry about the knee became a turning point in his on-field recovery.

"Finally I just ended that, I overcame it -- so be it," he said. "It's that principle of letting it go, and if it happens and I wasn't reckless, but I was still playing as hard as I could, I can live with that.

"I went out, and it was like I never left. That psychological battle he'll have to face when he goes out on the field will be the most difficult thing in the whole process."

Poppinga has no concerns Underwood will be able to handle it because he can tell he's been in the right frame of mind throughout his rehab.

"That's the key I think with most things in life is your attitude," Poppinga said. "His attitude has been great. He's been positive and optimistic, but at the same time he's been realistic too. He hasn't been delusional.

"He knows it's going to take 'x' amount of months for the graph to fully take shape and to be strong enough to support certain movements, so I think he's had a good balance. That's why he's recovered so well."

Underwood was playing awfully well last summer when he went down. Starting at safety while free-agent acquisition Marquand Manuel was recovering from a calf injury, Underwood was showing tremendous progress for a second-year player and finding his comfort zone in learning the defense and directing traffic in the secondary.

"Being able to play with Charles Woodson and Al Harris and Nick (Collins), it was like turning back to college when you're having a lot of fun, and then bam, it was over," he said. "So it was pretty hard. A lot of guys seemed to care a lot, the emotions started coming. It was tough, man. But my wife kept me going, and a lot of guys came over and hung out with me a little bit, so they helped me through it a lot."

It also helped Underwood to dedicate himself to the weight room, giving him a way of feeling productive despite not practicing or playing.

"You get injured like that, it turns on a light that you have to work hard," he said. "I couldn't be on the field, so I'm going to try to catch up in the weight room so I can be stronger than the guys. If I've got six months to lift before the other guys, I'm going to do it so I can be ahead some place."

What the payoff will be remains to be seen. Underwood wants to compete for a starting safety spot and will be given a chance to do so. At a minimum, he'd like to resume the special teams role he excelled in as a rookie, when he led the team with 23 special teams tackles.

"For me, I'm the kind of player who always wants to be the best," he said. "There's going to be a lot of competition and we have a lot of great safeties here. But I think that once my body gets where it needs to be, I'll be on track again.

"I'm doing a lot of stuff I never did before with my legs, so hopefully I might end up stronger, faster. I'm ready."

Ready for that first football practice, yet be patient until it eventually arrives. And ready to pick up where he left off, without looking back.

"I know it's going to feel great to go out there, be with the team and get to run around," he said. "I can't wait to go tackle somebody."

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