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Eagles tight end Ingram eager to return to game action

There is no McDonald's in Hawthorne, Fla. No Burger King. No fast-food establishments at all. When a Subway came to town, it was a big deal.

Cornelius Ingram is again rehabbing from a torn ACL suffered before last season. (Alejandro A. Alvarez/Staff file photo)
Cornelius Ingram is again rehabbing from a torn ACL suffered before last season. (Alejandro A. Alvarez/Staff file photo)Read more

There is no McDonald's in Hawthorne, Fla. No Burger King. No fast-food establishments at all. When a Subway came to town, it was a big deal.

So when Cornelius Ingram goes home to the town located near Gainesville, he usually eats at the Burger Barn. The owner has something for the Eagles tight end to sign. And wherever Ingram goes, rock-star treatment ensues. He walks down the street and people hunt him down for photos and autographs.

He loves his hometown, he really does. But, no, he can't fully embrace its praise. Not yet, anyway.

"I want to get something done on the field first," Ingram says.

It's been 2 1/2 years since Ingram played a down of football. Two anterior cruciate ligament injuries threw Ingram into a black hole of misery. Surgery and rehab. Rehab and surgery. Ingram's career to this point has been doomed, it seems. After missing his senior season at Florida with a torn left ACL, Ingram fell to the Eagles in the fifth round of the draft in 2009. He made it to August - almost a year to the day from the injury - and tore that same ACL.

Back to the knife. Back to waiting. He is sick of it. He is ready to prove to everyone - once and for all - that he can play.

Ducked under a lip of shade just outside the NovaCare Complex recently, Ingram took a deep breath. Everyone else at the voluntary practice had shuffled into the locker room 15 minutes ago. A grin stitched across his face, Ingram gazed at the deserted practice field. He feels the need to put in this overtime. He cherishes it.

"Just getting back out here again," Ingram says. "Being in the huddle. Catching the ball. It's pretty exciting for me. I had a long 2 years."

To Florida fans, Ingram's progress was a mystery. Nobody had a clue how far the wounded senior had come since tearing the ACL for the first time. All they saw was Ingram on crutches on the sideline all year. A senior season, ambushed by injury.

So on Senior Day, Ingram had an idea. After all the other seniors were honored, it was his turn. He stepped out of the tunnel, crouched into a three-point stance, and took off in a dead sprint. Three months removed from surgery, Ingram raced full-throttle to Urban Meyer at the 50-yard line and bear-hugged his coach.

Fitting closure to the bitterness of losing an entire championship season to injury. He easily could have turned pro after his junior season, when he had 34 catches for 508 yards and seven touchdowns. Instead, he returned to earn his degree and promptly tore the ACL in a non-contact drill. In respect, fans gave him a returning-soldier ovation.

Ingram literally saw and ran through the light at the end of a tunnel, a 1970s rock ballad practically playing in the background. The worst was behind him. He was in the clear.

"I thought I was done," Ingram says. "Never again. This wouldn't happen ever again."

Only it did. While tear-jerking inspirational, the Senior Day sprint symbolized false hope more than anything. Five days before the Eagles' first preseason game, an MRI revealed that Ingram had retorn the ACL. It was examined after he was awkwardly pushed into a pile. In reality, it could've happened weeks earlier.

Ingram said that during his surgery at Florida, doctors used tissue from a cadaver - not from Ingram himself - to repair the ACL. He felt rushed to get ready for the scouting combine, and this would accelerate his rehab. By August, Ingram was the talk of Eagles camp. But it was all a calm before the storm. His knee felt "loose." The cadaver graft was rotting. Never accepting Ingram's bloodstream, it withered away.

NFL sources told the Daily News last year that one reason Ingram fell to the fifth round was that teams weren't happy with what they saw when they reviewed his tests after the initial ACL repair.

In response, in a statement to the Daily News last August after Ingram retore the ACL, a Florida spokesman said, "We feel confident in the quality of medical care we provide the student-athletes at the University of Florida."

Either way, Ingram needed to start all over again. He refuses to question anyone at Florida. Cadaver grafts have worked with other players, he said.

Only for him, it didn't.

In Jacksonville, Ingram's roommate for 3 1/2 years at Florida was crushed. Defensive end Derrick Harvey couldn't call Ingram right away. He knew Ingram needed space. Once the shock dissipated, Harvey reached out.

"He keeps fighting," says Harvey, the Jaguars' first-round pick in 2008. "He never gives up. He'll get back to the way he was before the injury. He's that type of person."

Whenever he was on the phone with his mom, Ingram tried his hardest to never cry. To never express sadness. He refused to cause her any agony.

Still, Gwen Ingram knew. Through the crackling phone reception, she felt her son's pain last summer. His voice quivered. Answers shortened. There was subtle sniffling. And at that moment, Gwen knew her son had been crying, knew these torn ACLs were taking a huge toll.

Those phone calls hurt more than anything.

"I'd ask if he was OK and he'd say, 'Yes,' " she says. "But deep down, I knew he wasn't all right. I told him, 'You need to fight deep down inside of you. If this is what you want, you have to still go after it.' "

And he did.

First came the surgery. This time, Ingram turned to famed sports orthopedist Dr. James Andrews. Using a graft from Ingram's patella to repair the torn ACL, Andrews restored proper blood flow. Next came ensuring Ingram's sanity. Again, he was a virtual redshirt. Luckily, he had company. Unlike the year before, Ingram didn't train alone. With middle linebacker Stewart Bradley also recovering from a torn ACL, Ingram had someone to compete with every day.

The two became inseparable. They played video games; Bradley is unstoppable on FIFA. Some days, they'd eat at Capital Grille. Other days, El Vez. Bradley always picked up the tab. And mostly, they pushed each other. Neither allowed boredom to set in.

Ingram's sadness transferred to hunger. Those phone calls home cheered up.

"He was a guy that kept me motivated," Ingram says. "A lot of people don't understand how hard it is to come back from a major surgery like an ACL. So when you're doing a lot of stuff with high-volume reps, you tend to get tired and say, 'Man, we're finished.' "

Bradley didn't allow it. The two one-upped each other each day, Bradley always demanding one more set. A healthy competition brewed. One day in the pool after a workout - Ingram laughs immediately thinking about it - the two debated who was better at every sport. Football, basketball, baseball, everything was analyzed. The crossfire heated up to a point where they apologized to each other later that day.

Ingram needed this competitiveness. No surgery, no pill, no therapy could fill this void.

"There was some good trash-talking," Ingram says. "We got really competitive and became really good friends . . . He always keeps you motivated. Always keeps you going."

Greg Bowie, Ingram's older brother, says a day didn't go by when Ingram wouldn't mention Bradley. Then again, he was never worried about Ingram's psyche. Bowie knew what Ingram could handle. Back when they were kids, he unloaded a daily serving of flailing elbows, flagrant fouls and harsh language onto Ingram in one-on-one basketball games. Five years older, Bowie pushed Ingram to his breaking point. Eventually, Ingram cracked. He cried and whined and sought refuge at home.

Each time, Gwen Ingram made him go back outside with his big brother and the pounding resumed for 3, 4, 5 hours a night.

"It takes a lot to get him down," said Bowie, who coaches football and basketball at Hawthorne. "And right now, he has something to prove."

Gwen remains as deliberate today as she was back then. During training camp last year, she challenged Cornelius.

" 'You need to face your giant,' " she remembers telling him. " 'Maybe this is your giant right now. You have to face him and move on. You can't run away from it.' "

Ingram's career hasn't even begun and the countdown is on. He hasn't played a down and there is urgency.

The message was loud and clear: By drafting Missouri State tight end Clay Harbor in the fourth round, the Eagles aren't completely sold on Ingram. He looks reborn, running and cutting with ease. Problem is, his football game has been locked in a coma for more than 2 years. With that knee, Ingram could launch a medical drama.

So the Eagles covered their backs by drafting Harbor and bringing back Martin Rucker from the practice squad, and suddenly there's competition behind starter Brent Celek. The Eagles could opt to keep three tight ends, or perhaps only two.

Steve Addazio, Ingram's offensive coordinator at Florida, isn't worried.

"A player's a player whether you're out for a year, 18 months or 24 months," Addazio says. "I don't know if that has any relevance as long as you're healthy and feel like your old self again."

For one more summer, the Eagles will stay patient. Ingram has been a movie with no premiere date. The trailer seems appealing. A one-handed catch from Michael Vick one day. Multiple deep post grabs from Kevin Kolb another day. He's in tight, in the slot, out wide, in motion.

Back in high school, opposing basketball coaches focused game plans around not allowing Ingram to dunk - the electricity in the gym was impossible to overcome. In track, he made states in the hurdles and triple jump. And before Tim Tebow was christened as the second coming, Ingram was Florida's quarterback of the future. As Addazio says, "He has all the components that go into being a phenomenal athlete."

Maybe he's some hybrid Steve Jobs-crafted innovation the tight-end position hasn't seen. Maybe he's another sad victim of knee injuries. Nobody knows yet. That's what is intriguing. The hype is building.

"He's excited and I'm excited," Celek says. "He's really going to help us out this year."

Ingram doesn't want pity. Other players go through much worse, he says. He's healthy. That's all he cares about. Ingram missed the Harbor pick himself. He wasn't watching the draft at the time. Of course, it didn't take long for him to find out. Almost immediately, hometown friends prodded Ingram for a rebuttal.

Was he mad? Did he feel disrespected?

To all of them, Ingram's response was the same.

"If my knee is fine, I can play this game," he says. "I know that if I take care of what I need to take care of, I'll be fine. That's what I plan on doing."

And then he can truly smile for all those pictures in Hawthorne.