IRVING, Texas – An out-of-breath Rolando McClain needed just one word to sum up his feelings on returning to the practice field on Wednesday.
"Exhausted," he said.
That isn't exactly surprising when you consider McClain's path back to the Cowboys' roster. The last time he played a single snap of football was Jan. 11, when the Cowboys' 2014 season ended in Green Bay.
In the time since, he's been on a steady rehabilitation from knee surgery – a recovery that kept him out of on-field activities in the offseason and during training camp.
"I feel good moving around, I feel good as far as being comfortable with the defense. But you're not in football shape until you play football," McClain said. "All the sprinting and working out and everything extra you do, but football shape is a little different."
It's also important to note that McClain hasn't been completely healthy in quite some time. He fought through a variety of nagging injuries during his first year with the Cowboys. He fought off a groin problem in the early going of the season, and a knee injury suffered in Week 9 bothered him all the way up to the offseason, when he had it scoped.
Those problems appear to be in the rearview now, though, with the only step left being game action.
"It's one thing to be cleared by the doctors to go," McClain said. "It's another totally different thing to be cleared in your own mind in the sense of just trusting it, moving it, going, thinking and reacting without thinking about the knee. So, I don't know. We'll find out."
McClain's return didn't go unnoticed among his teammates, who were happy to welcome him and Greg Hardy back to the field on Wednesday morning.
"He looked like Ro – he looked a little winded, but he was still Ro," said Jeremy Mincey.
To that point, McClain looks larger as he returns to the roster in 2015 – which is saying something, considering he's listed at 6-4, 259 pounds. The sixth-year veteran said it isn't so much that he's larger now, as it's that he was smaller when he arrived in Dallas last season after a year in retirement.
"I feel like last year I was lighter -- a lot lighter than what I am normally used to playing at, but 18 months off, you'll lose a little muscle mass," he said. "I got my weight back and I should be able to sustain it a lot longer going on throughout the year."
The first step will be getting McClain back into the swing of things. He was allowed to come to the facility and participate in meetings during his month-long suspension, but Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said he'll be monitored while he works back into practice.
"He's got good instinct and feel for the game, so we do think he will pick things up quickly," Garrett said. "But again we will watch him day by day and hopefully get those guys ready to play this week."
With all the factors working against him, it's hard to predict just how many snaps McClain will play Sunday when the Patriots come to AT&T Stadium. For his part, McClain said he's happy simply to be playing football again, and he's ready for whatever role is asked of him.
"As much as required," he said. "When the ball's snapped, the ball's snapped -- so go get the guy with the ball."