IRVING, Texas –As he sat on the Cowboys bench in the second half of Sunday's win over the Buccaneers, his right shoe and sock taken off, Barry Church had a look of sheer disappointment.
He had just learned his season was over far too early following a Achilles tendon tear – either full or partial – that will require surgery on Tuesday. Teammates came around to try to console him, but what could they say to make it better? Called too slow, Church had gone undrafted following four years as an all-conference star at Toledo, only to make the Cowboys in 2010, slowly work his way up the ranks and easily beat out veteran Brodney Pool for a starting job this offseason.
As disappointed as Church was on the sideline, his mood had turned less than an hour later. Speaking to reporters in the Cowboys locker room, he supported himself not only with a pair of crutches, but with his familiar smile.
"On the sidelines it was kind of just shock, like, wow, this really happened. But once I sat down I just kind of had a little talk with myself and figured, you know, you can't be negative about everything. If you keep on the negative, you're just going to become a negative person, so I've got to keep upbeat and keep positive, and see what happens."
What will happen is a months-long recovery that will determine the direction of Church's career.
Some players returning from Achilles injuries are never quite the same – longtime Cowboys fans will remember former first-round pick Kevin Smith, who was hurt in the season opener in 1995 and came back the next year, only a half a step slower. But outside linebacker Greg Ellis suffered the same injury in 2006 and then won NFL Comeback Player of the Year in 2007 after posting a career-high 12.5 sacks.
With the final year of Church's contract coming in 2013, a lot is riding on his recovery. It will only help to remain optimistic.
"I've just got to keep my mind straight," Church said. "I've got to keep my head up. I can't let this injury get the best of me. I'll be at the house for a while just relaxing with the cast, but I just can't let it get the best of me. I've got to go out there and continue to get better."
Though the injury certainly has career path implications, the thing that bothered Church the most in the aftermath of Sunday's game was that he won't be able to help this year. Over the preseason and his three starts in September, he had appeared to solidify the safety position of a much improved defense.
"It's pretty tough," Church said. "I came out this year looking to make improvements on my game. I feel like I did that the first couple games I played, but this happened. It's a freak accident. Things happen. But I've just got to battle back and try to come back stronger."