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Swain's Spirits Strong On Long Rehab Road

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In discussing the toughest moments he's endured since injuring his knee late last October in Cleveland, Packers reserve receiver and special teamer Brett Swain didn't mention the pain of the torn ACL itself or the grueling rehab he's currently putting himself through.

"The hardest thing was on Sundays, walking through the locker room and watching everybody get ready for the games," Swain said. "That's the hardest thing about this injury. Surgery was hard and everything, but nothing compared to walking through the locker room on Sundays, because you want to be out there just as bad as they do."

It's easy to understand where Swain is coming from when you consider his career path to this point. He already had been through a season of watching the entire team get ready for games he couldn't play in, as a member of the practice squad throughout his 2008 rookie year. A seventh-round draft choice out of San Diego State, Swain didn't make the 53-man roster but used his year on the practice squad to remake his body physically and hone his approach mentally to playing the pro game.

He then earned a roster spot in 2009 as the fifth receiver, mostly due to his potential for special-teams contributions. As the regular season began, he not only was dressing every Sunday for the games along with everybody else as one of the 45 active players, but he was getting on the field and starting to make his mark on special teams when his season abruptly ended in the sixth game.

Covering a second-quarter kickoff at the Browns on Oct. 25, Swain said his body got in a "weird position" and his knee "gave out" from a combination of speed and torque it couldn't handle.

It was a devastating blow to a young player who had fought the battles Swain had. Aside from working to mature physically and fundamentally, he dedicated last offseason to learning how to play special teams, duty he had never previously undertaken but that he knew would be key to making the roster.

He spent time one-on-one watching film with special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum, asking a lot of questions. When he applied what he was learning to the field, he realized the special-teams mentality of playing "with your hair on fire," as Swain says, but with the discipline to execute specific responsibilities, suited him well.

"I wasn't afraid," Swain said when asked what he thought the coaches noticed most about his special-teams play. "But for me it wasn't just running down as fast as I can and running into someone, but running down as fast as I can and trying to make a play on the ball or trying to do something positive to make the end result of the play go our way."

Swain made an impact right away. In his first NFL game, against Chicago in the season opener, Swain held his ground at the line of scrimmage and snuffed out a fake punt by the Bears in the fourth quarter. His tackle of Garrett Wolfe on fourth-and-11 set up a go-ahead field goal by Green Bay.

By Week 6 vs. Detroit, Swain was on all four main special teams units (kickoff return and coverage, punt return and coverage) and added three special teams tackles against the Lions, just one week before the Cleveland game.

The sudden detour his season took, though, only has Swain more determined to prove he belongs in the NFL. He had surgery two weeks after the injury, and the good news was he sustained no damage in the knee other than the ACL.

Since then it's been a pretty typical rehab schedule for this type of injury. Initially, the focus was on getting range of motion back in the knee. Then Swain started working on strengthening exercises, particularly for his quad muscle that went through the usual post-surgery atrophy.

For Swain, it's all about setting dates to move onto each new step, and right now his next date is April 1, when he plans to begin jogging and then eventually running again. The key date down the road for him is Aug. 1, the start of training camp, when he hopes to be fully cleared to play football again.

"Right now we're starting to really buckle down on what we're doing, starting to push the pedal to the metal, because we want to hit that date," said Swain, who is rehabbing anywhere from three to five hours a day, five days a week, at the Packers' facility. "It's a whole lot of work and mental preparation, just the will to get back and get ready, because it's a long process."

Swain also has found that there's a balancing act involved, not unlike that of the "controlled aggression" needed to play special teams.

"Some people will push it to try to come back as fast as they can, and some people will lengthen it out to come back when they're ready," he said. "I'm right in the middle. I want to push it to where I want to be back at the time I set, but I don't want to push it too much because I want to be 100 percent healthy."

Swain said he's received a lot of encouragement from teammates and coaches along his rehab road, pointing out that during the season he was especially appreciative of Mark Tauscher's support. This past season, Tauscher came back from the second reconstructive knee surgery of his career, and with his locker just a few slots away from Swain's, the veteran and fellow seventh-round draft pick was regularly checking in on his younger teammate.

{sportsad300}"You have to keep your sights on the people that have gone through it and really succeeded through the whole injury deal," Swain said. "Mark's always asking, 'How are you doing? Oh, you're at this stage ...' He's always kind of walking you through it a little bit, and guys like that keep you on the right side of the road."

That right side for Swain is the one that's dedicated to coming back at full strength and making another run at a roster spot, as opposed to the side that can trap players into channeling their energies in the wrong direction, be that pity, frustration or anything else unproductive.

When he does get back to full health, he sees himself in the same position as a year ago, when Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, James Jones and Jordy Nelson had the top four receiver spots. He plans to battle again for the fifth spot with Patrick Williams and any other receivers brought in during or after the draft, with special teams a potentially deciding factor.

Having won that battle once, he's confident he can do so again, so his focus remains more immediate - on his rehab and the next target date on his schedule.

But even with such a long ways to go, both off the field and on, at some point that focus will shift to the dates on the regular-season schedule, when he can walk through the locker room and get ready for the games again.

"It was definitely a real hard pill to swallow because you put all that work into it and it just kind of gets taken away from you," he said. "But that's where you have to keep your head up and say it is part of the game. You worked so hard to be a part of the game, now you have to deal with all the things that come along with it.

"But for guys that love to be a part of this game, we'll do anything to stay that way."

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