Tight end Jake Ballard catches a pass during a recent Cardinals' workout.
The knee was slow to respond, at least slower than Jake Ballard would've liked. Slower than NFL teams would've liked too, and the tight end couldn't help but wonder.
Am I done? Is that it?
Ballard had emerged, somewhat improbably, from undrafted to the New York Giants' starting tight end, catching passes for a Super Bowl winner and looking like a rising star in 2011. Yet it was during that same championship excitement that Ballard shredded his knee, jeopardizing his present and certainly his future.
He wasn't done. Proof of that comes with every day Ballard goes out on the Cardinals' practice fields these days,
catching passes during offseason work and showing why he's part of coach Bruce Arians' tight end armada. It took a long time to get here.
"You'd think, 'My knee is not feeling good and I don't know how it's going to get better,' " Ballard said. "The highs and lows I've had in my career are crazy. Winning the Super Bowl, it doesn't get better than that. Then jobless in your fourth season.
"There's been some emotional turmoil."
Ballard's arrival in Arizona last season stabilized a position in need of it. He had just seven catches for 75 yards and two touchdowns, but remains as part of a group that includes holdover Rob Housler, free-agent signee John Carlson and second-round draft pick Troy Niklas.
In Arians' offense, tight end is a need and Arians likes the upgrade he sees over this time last year.
"We feel like the position is really solid right now," Arians said. "Jake came in and did a nice job at the end of last year.
"Obviously, we like tight ends. We use a lot of them."
Ballard signed Nov. 4 of 2013, three weeks after he granted the Cardinals the first tryout of his comeback. His career had been a roller coaster since breaking out for the Giants. Clearly the top tight end for the Giants, he was enjoying a good Super Bowl performance until he got caught up with Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes with seven minutes left in the game.
He tore the anterior cruciate ligament, although the initial diagnosis was a bad meniscus tear. Cameras famously caught Ballard on the sideline, trying to run it off and get back in the game before collapsing.
"What was I going to do, not try to come back in the Super Bowl?" Ballard said.
He had to walk on crutches during the on-field celebration and be taken to the post-game party in a wheelchair. He didn't find out until the next morning, after a plane ride back to New York, the injury was his ACL and the beginning of a very long journey back to the field.
Even the circumstances around his rehab were hard. Ballard felt like he was a major part of the Giants' run and their future. He was just 25. But the Giants, deciding for some reason they needed his roster spot during the 90-man offseason, tried to sneak him through waivers so he could go on injured reserve in the offseason instead of just waiting until the end of training camp.
The Patriots claimed him. Ballard was told late in the afternoon while watching his now former teammates finish up their final minicamp practice. And he was crushed.
"I got sick to my stomach," Ballard said. "New York was where I wanted to be."
Ballard said he understands what the Giants were doing, although the disappointment clearly still remains. He had grown to dislike the Patriots after playing them three times the previous year, and now they were his team. Patriots coach Bill Belichick said he envisioned a team that used Ballard, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski
together. Ballard began to see the situation in a better light.
But the relationship never jelled. Ballard, who believes he tried to come back too soon in 2013 for camp from both the ACL and accompanying microfracture surgery, was cut in preseason by the Patriots. At that point, the end felt near. Ballard decided to fight that feeling.
"In the back of my head was, 'It's never been easy, why should it be now?' " Ballard said. "I just couldn't give up on my dream."
He continued to work on his knee with Minneapolis doctor Josh Sandell and trainer Bill Welle, who runs Larry Fitzgerald's summer workouts in Minnesota. Interest from teams was never a problem, but making sure Ballard's knee was ready for a tryout was.
The Cardinals told him they didn't have room on the roster yet during his October workout. A couple of other teams similarly passed, until the Patriots came calling again. New England wanted to sign Ballard, but said it would have to be after their bye week. The Cards called when Ballard was in New England, saying they now had a spot after rookie tight end D.C. Jefferson was released.
Ballard said the Patriots encouraged him to go to Arizona because they couldn't immediately bring him on board. And so Ballard came to the Cards and played right away.
Coaches told him he looked better every week as he worked back into football. These days, it's about working on assignments rather than rehab, which is exactly where Ballard wants to be. It certainly took long enough.
"It's night and day from when I first got here," Ballard said. "I feel like I am almost back to my old self. And that's a relief."