When the Packers and Browns opened the 2010 preseason, Ryan Grant was coming off the best season of his career. He had rushed for 1,253 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2009 and he was one of the game's established running backs. A month later, his season was over.
Ironically, James Starks began his rookie training camp last year on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list with a hamstring injury. A sixth-round pick from lightly regarded Buffalo, Starks was an afterthought to the Packers' plans for 2010.
Much changed very quickly for both men. As the Packers prepare to open their 2011 preseason in Cleveland, Starks is one of the stars of the Packers' late-season rush to the Super Bowl XLV title, and Grant is in his comeback year from a season lost to an ankle injury.
"It's football, and when you understand that, it doesn't surprise you. It's part of the game," Grant said of the swings and sways of a sport that's driven by challenge, not security.
Grant is expected to see his first game action on Saturday since suffering an ankle injury in last season's opener in Philadelphia. He claims to have no anxiety for that first hit he'll take on the ankle, but when it happens, he'll no doubt celebrate having made it through a long and painful period of inactivity, which was punctuated by the rigors of rehab and the feeling of detachment as he watched his teammates win without him. Football can be a very hurtful game.
"People talk about being that guy," he said of reaching a level of stardom that insulates a player from having to compete for a job. "There aren't many of those guys. The majority of guys are being pushed by competition."
Grant is in the majority now. A year ago, it was his job and he was unchallenged for it. Now, he's in a battle with Starks for the starting job, and the performance of each player in this preseason, beginning in Cleveland on Saturday, will likely determine who lines up behind Aaron Rodgers when the New Orleans Saints come to Green Bay in Week 1 of the regular season.
"Our effort to find more backs to add to the group isn't any kind of shot at Ryan Grant," General Manager Ted Thompson said.
Thompson added rookie Alex Green to the group when Thompson selected Green in the third round of this year's draft. Green is a big, pounding type of runner. He has had his moments both good and bad in training camp; a fumble here, a burst there.
For now, however, Starks is the competition. He showed the potential in the playoffs last season to believe he can be a special back.
"I knew what I could do. This is what I love to do. I know I'm good at football," Starks said. "I'm trying to be better than I was last year and stay healthy for the whole season."
Neither Grant nor Starks is expected to see a lot of action on Saturday, but a few carries here and there will officially kick off the preseason competition. The possibility exists, of course, that Green might even join the hunt.
It's football, and as Grant said, "It's part of the game."