Stewart Bradley raised his arms and pantomimed a beam of light shining down onto his 6-foot-4, 255-pound body.
He was being sarcastic.
The middle linebacker ripped up his right knee last training camp, and it all but tore a hole through the center of the Eagles. But Bradley is back – at least he's close to it – and he's downplaying the notion that his return will rectify all that was wrong with the defense last season.
"All I can do is play my best and I think that should be enough to handle my position," Bradley said last week at the NovaCare Complex. "I'm not thinking that I'm going to come in, the lights are going to come down, and the defense is going to change or something."
While that may be the case, Bradley will, at the very least, stabilize the middle linebacker position. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott tried so many players last year fans couldn't be sure if one game they might see Concrete Charlie Bednarik out there. Jeremiah Trotter and his creaky, 32-year-old knees were brought back, and he ended up starting the most games.
In all, six linebackers played in the middle. There were 11 lineup changes.
So it's easy to understand the Eagles' excitement when the notion of Bradley's return is brought up. An hour or so after Dallas punched holes through the Eagles' defense in a 34-14 Philadelphia playoff loss, McDermott was asked about Bradley. For the first time during the interview, he smiled.
"We're excited to have him back," McDermott said in January. "Look at what we had on the field compared to what we started with."
Last season was supposed to be Bradley's "breakout season." In 2008, his second year, he won the starting job and seemingly improved each week. Athletically gifted, ultracompetitive, and cerebral, the Tolstoy-reading Bradley was supposed to take his place among the best middle linebackers in the game.
And then in training camp he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, four years after he tore the ACL in his other knee.
For the Eagles, the 26-year-old Bradley isn't the only player attempting to come back from an ACL tear. Center Jamaal Jackson injured his knee in the second-to-last game of the regular season and is a toss-up for the season opener. Defensive back Marlin Jackson, whom the Eagles signed as a free safety last month, is trying to come back from his second ACL injury in two years and win the free-safety job.
Tight end Cornelius Ingram tore the ACL in his left knee, the same knee he injured almost exactly one year earlier while at Florida. Three days earlier, reporters were asking Ingram to describe what Bradley was experiencing. A week later, after surgeries, they became rehabilitation partners.
A friendship and a rivalry were born.
"He's one of those guys that's passionate and competitive with everything that he does," Ingram said. "He's like, 'Come on, let's get some extra reps.' I'm like, 'Stew, I just told you I'm dead tired.' And he'll be like, 'Come on, let's do one more set.' "
Rather than stew over his injury, Bradley immersed himself in his recovery. Having dealt with an ACL tear before, he was mentally prepared for the ordeal. But having the similarly sized (6-4, 245 pounds) and similarly amiable Ingram by his side helped immensely.
"He was the victim of many of my competitions," said Bradley. "I can be competitive to a fault. I've had girlfriends get mad at me for being too competitive about even dorky stuff."
Ingram had seen that type of competitiveness once before. His quarterback at Florida - somebody named Tim Tebow - was just as gung-ho.
If working out with Ingram helped pass the time, it did not help during the games.
"It sucks. It's the worst," Bradley said. "There's no antidote for that."
And the fact that the Eagles struggled in the middle did not help matters. Bradley gave his input to whoever happened to have the job. He gave tips on how to use the headset and make calls. But nothing worked. McDermott kept shuffling linebackers in and out, each one unable to play all three downs as Bradley did.
Eagles coach Andy Reid said last week that Bradley could have played at the end of the season. Of course, being on injured reserve kept him from doing so. With a 2010 return as his goal, Bradley said that he never pushed his recovery. He watched more film than he ever had. The avid reader read John Steinbeck and Robert Ludlum. And he stayed positive.
"If you approach it like, 'OK, this sucks, this is a drag, I want to be playing,' then it can really hamper you and you can be behind," he said. "But if you take it as an opportunity, you can come back as a better player – bigger and stronger."
Both he and Ingram are still occasionally in rehab, but they're also participating in team conditioning drills. The sessions involve full-out sprinting and cutting. Bradley said that he expected to practice some during mini-camp, be back in pads by training camp, and be able to shake the rust off by the start of the season.
"If you haven't had the pads on for a couple months, players are knocking off the rust themselves," he said. "We'll all feel like that. We'll obviously see, but I don't anticipate that being the case."
Now if only he could finish Tolstoy.
"I finished another section of War and Peace," Bradley said. "I just don't think I'm ever going to finish it."
Men in the Middle
Can Stewart Bradley become the best middle linebacker in Eagles history? Here are some of the players he will have to surpass to do so:
Chuck Bednarik (No. 60, 6-foot-3, 233 pounds, 1949-62): A member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Concrete Charlie was named to the Pro Bowl an Eagles-record eight times. He also played center as a two-way player and was the main man of the 1960 NFL championship team. He is a member of the Eagles' honor roll.
Bill Bergey (No. 66, 6-2, 243, 1974-80): Acquired in a trade with the Bengals, this tough guy had great football instincts and made nearly 1,200 tackles for the Birds. He made it to the Pro Bowl four times and was known as a fierce hitter and with a nose for the ball. He intercepted five passes in 1974, four in 1978, and finished with 18 for his Eagles career. A member of the Eagles' honor roll, he helped the team reach the 1980 Super Bowl.
Jeremiah Trotter (No. 54, 6-1, 262, 1998-2001, 2004-2009): A team leader, Trotter spent time with Washington and Tampa Bay between stints with the Birds. Released after last season, he was strong and solid against the run, making 119 tackles and forcing two fumbles in 2005. An effective blitzer, he made four Pro Bowls.
Byron Evans (No. 56, 6-2, 235, 1987-94): A team captain and the leader of Buddy Ryan's famous 46 defense, Evans, with his long arms, was a solid run-stopper and tackler. In 1989, he had 184 tackles, two sacks, three interceptions, and three fumble recoveries. His career ended abruptly when he broke his leg and ripped up his knee while making a tackle against the Browns.
Tim Rossovich, (No. 82, 6-4, 240, 1968-71): Moved from defensive end to middle linebacker by coach Jerry Williams to succeed Dave Lloyd, Rossovich was a colorful player known as well for his off-the-field personality. He had good speed and often made plays all over the field. He was traded to San Diego in 1972.
Dave Lloyd (No. 52, 6-3, 247, 1963-70): Acquired from the Lions, the burly roughneck served as the Birds' kicker as well. He collected 14 interceptions over his eight seasons.