FOR THE FIRST time in more than a year, Mike Patterson pulled a helmet on over his head and buckled the chin strap and ran out on a football field. It was only a practice - and a practice without pads, at that - but everyone on the Eagles recognized the milestone. "Fresh legs, fresh legs," is what they shouted at Patterson, a starter at defensive tackle from 2005 until this offseason, when the brain surgery happened.
The seizure that overtook him on the practice field at Lehigh in August of 2011 was frightening. The diagnosis of AVM - arteriovenous malformation, a tangling of blood vessels near the skull - was serious, but Patterson took medication and played through 2011. Offseason surgery to fix the problem was said to be successful, but the actual healing of the skull took longer than expected. It wasn't until the most recent set of X-rays was OK'd by the doctor that Patterson was given the go-ahead.
So, here he comes. It sounds as if, talking to him, the anticipation on Sunday night was like a grown man's Christmas.
"I mean, it was pretty cool," Patterson said. "I was very excited and stuff, kept on thinking about it. But I was real excited and everything. Just kind of happy to be back. Just got to take it one day at a time and just wait patiently until I get back on that real field."
According to the rules for players being activated from the non-football injury list, the Eagles will now begin a process of evaluation that can take as long as 3 weeks. By then, the team will have to activate Patterson or put him on injured reserve, ending his season.
"I'm not in the rotation right now, so like I said, they're just going to take it slow," Patterson said. "We're going to see how things work out. The big man [coach Andy Reid], he's just not in a rush to get me out there and risk anything. So, just kind of looking at me. I'm just happy to be out there running around."
Patterson had a good year in 2011, and has been a good run-stopping tackle through his career. He showed a little more pass rushing last year, as the team moved to the wide-nine formation, but he really is not a pass-rush guy and never has been one. You have to believe the hope here is that he is able to add to the team's tackle rotation, and to be solid - and, maybe, to be able to display those fresh legs now and again. But anyone who expects his return to make a big difference in the pass rush is probably hoping beyond hope.
The pass rush will be fixed or not fixed by other people, in other ways - maybe just by making everything less predictable. But that is new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles' task. Patterson's job is simpler and, frankly, happier. It is just to be a football player again.
We have no sense about anything yet, particularly Patterson's conditioning. You have to believe, if the Eagles activate him, that he will be worked in slowly. At the same time, there have been run-stopping issues - particularly in the last two games, losses to Pittsburgh and Detroit. It isn't alarming, not yet, but a healthy Patterson could help. History suggests at least that much.
But how will he know if he's ready? About his conditioning? About any of it? Patterson says, simply, "I'm sure Andy is going to have it right for me, so I don't even have to worry about that."
The thing you noticed most about Patterson in the long months of his recovery has been just how upbeat he has been about the whole thing. If he had frightened moments along the way - and how could he not have frightened moments? - he kept them to himself and, presumably, his family. In the locker room, interacting with teammates and reporters, the man has been all smiles and sunshine and patience with a delicate process. Even when the Eagles coldly cut his pay during the offseason, Patterson said he understood.
And now he is back, even if we are still talking about the first steps.
"It felt real good, man," he said, after practice. "I feel very excited. I was kind of jittery, I would say, this morning. But after getting into the swing of this and meetings and stuff, stuff goes away and you kind of take it in and everything's happy. I'm just happy to be out here."