The author of *America's Team: The Official History of the Dallas Cowboys, Sullivan also writes a new column in each issue of Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. For subscription information, please click here.*
Oxnard, Calif. – There was The Walking Dead, Boardwalk Empire, Games of Thrones, and his favorite of the bunch, Breaking Bad.
For four months, Anthony Spencer laid on a couch and binge-watched television shows with his pregnant wife. One after another. There were other activities he would have preferred to be doing, playing football comes to mind, but Spencer couldn't walk. Literally could not walk. One of the premier outside linebackers in the NFL from 2009-12, arguably the Cowboys' defensive MVP two seasons ago, he could do nothing more than watch the tube following microfracture surgery on his left knee last October.
"My wife was taking care of me when it should have been me taking care of her," Spencer said. "At least I got to go through that process with her. That part, though, not being able to do anything but lie there, that sucked. I guess it's part of playing the game, though. Part of life."
There were times when he felt sorry for himself. Times when he was almost certain his football career was finished. Some within the organization were starting to think that also, as several of the initial reports following surgery were anything but glowing. Not that it wasn't a successful surgery; it's just complicated. This isn't a torn ACL, where the overwhelming majority of surgeries are identical and the recovery is textbook formatted.
"Yeah, especially earlier in the (process), after the surgery, when I couldn't walk or do anything," Spencer said. "At that point, it's hard not to think about your career being finished, never playing football again. That's pretty tough."
Now, it's all but certain that Spencer will play football again. The question is when. The answer, well, it's complex. [embedded_ad]
Before the surgery, Spencer's agent, Jordan Woy, told ESPN.com that his client would be 100 percent by January or February. Spencer wasn't even putting pressure on his leg or walking by then. The last six months have been a painfully (in more ways than one) slow process, one that began with Spencer walking with a cane and progressing to light jogging in a straight line by the spring. Just last week he began change-of-direction drills with Britt Brown, the Cowboys' associate athletic trainer/director of rehabilitation.
Neither Spencer nor Brown, or anyone associated with the Cowboys for that matter, wants Spencer to start the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list, which would mean sitting out the first six games. However, the clock is certainly tick, tock, tick, tock, with the opener 27 days away and Spencer still at least a week, seemingly longer, from putting on pads.
"There's no set timetable. Every one of these surgeries and subsequent rehabs are different. How Anthony progresses is dictated by how he tolerates the work every day," Brown said. "We are hopeful that when the time comes, before the opener, that we're far enough in the process to have a legitimate discussion of whether or not he starts the season on PUP. We have to get him some reps and see if he's comfortable."
Reading between the lines, that sounds like Spencer, barring a setback, could be ready two or three games into the season, and the team just needs to determine what makes sense, roster-wise. Now, when Spencer does return, it's not going to be 100 percent, at least not at first. Brown estimates that by around Thanksgiving Spencer should be near that level.
And that level on many weeks has been that of a Pro Bowler. He was selected as such in 2012, when he set career highs in tackles (95) and sacks (11), and he should have been named in 2009, when he was arguably the best outside linebacker in the league over the second half of the season.
For me, the most overlooked story of last season in terms of injuries was Spencer. When fans or the media would talk about the defensive injuries, which were historic, Spencer's name would just sort of be thrown in there with everyone else. This was baffling. This was, to many, the team's best defensive player the previous season and he played just one game and 38 snaps. This was a huge loss. And was a miserable, brutal experience for Spencer as he watched his depleted unit struggle on a weekly basis.
"You're not in the meetings, or at practice, just all those everyday aspects of the football season, and you just don't feel like you're a part of the team," Spencer said. "When you've been a part of a team for so long, and then an injury like mine happens, you definitely feel detached.
"It was hard to watch the games. It was difficult. I've never been through anything like this. I just kept thinking that at some point I would have the opportunity to come back and play, and that was my motivation every day."
A healthy Spencer at end – and he's not worried about the position change from outside linebacker despite just playing the one game last season – would make all the difference for this defense. Even if he just plays 30-40 snaps for 12 games and peaks down the stretch, that's a game changer. Spencer is just what this defense lacks, a playmaking pass rusher.
For the most part this camp, Spencer is seen here and there, often receiving treatment or doing some rehab on the side, away from his teammates. He's been smiling more of late, knowing that day of putting the pads on again is coming soon. How soon?
"I'm not sure, it's a hard thing to say, I've never had this type of injury before and they're really taking their time with me," Spencer said. "I'm responding well and we're really hopeful I'm back for the first game (against San Francisco). I really don't want to be put on PUP, so by the time that first game comes around, we'll have to make a decision and I hope it's the right one."
In the meantime, Spencer continues to work, as he did all spring and summer. There was many an afternoon when Spencer was alone in the Valley Ranch weight room, working out and rehabbing. He wants this. Not that he didn't always love the game to begin with, but having played only a single Sunday since 2012, he realizes more than ever just how much football means to him.
"I don't need anymore TV for awhile, that's for sure," Spencer said with a laugh. "I just want to play some football."
Follow Jeff Sullivan on Twitter, @SullyBaldHead, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.