GREENVILLE, S.C. -- The answer came before the question:
"Everything is well. Everything is great. I'm prepared and ready to go -- not to be back where I was, but to be better."
Byron Hanspard was quick to proclaim himself completely healed from major reconstructive knee surgery performed two years ago. Now, as the Atlanta Falcons work through another training camp at Furman University, Hanspard is walking without a limp and talking without doubt. His confidence is so high, he often tells people about his recovery before they ask. The way he figures it, he's merely beating them to the punch.
For more than a year, teammates, coaches and reporters have had the same question for the running back from Texas Tech: "How's the knee?" His reaction has become quick and second nature, if not instinctive, telling everyone that, at long last, everything is fine.
When Hanspard was injured during the preseason in 1998, he faced the most difficult year physically of his young life. When his knee wouldn't respond last season, his pain turned emotional.
The surgery to rebuild his tattered left knee was a success, but the rehabilitation took longer than expected. Then starting tailback Jamal Anderson suffered a similar injury to his right knee early in the second game. When the Falcons, who qualified for the Super Bowl in 1998 without Hanspard, needed him most, his knee betrayed him.
"I was hurt, of course, because I expected more of myself to give more than I was able to give," he said as Atlanta finished its first week of training camp. "I've seen people come off knee injuries before and be better than they ever were. I'm a positive person, and I'm going to stay positive regardless of the situation.
"But when I saw Jamal go down, I really believed I was going to come in and play and perform and help the team. It just wasn't my time. It was a terrible feeling to be needed and not be able to help like I wanted."
Hanspard played sparingly last season. He had 136 carries for 383 yards. He wasn't activated for four games, and he didn't break into the starting lineup until the final four games.
He knows Anderson faces the same kinds of ups and downs, especially during training camp. He hopes his talented teammate won't get too excited about the good days and too despondent about the bad days.
"There was a lot of pain," Hanspard said. "Mentally, I felt I was fine. I felt like I was ready to play, but I also knew there'd be some setbacks. It was difficult, but I believe it made me stronger -- both mentally and physically. Working through the pain, then sitting and watching other people, that's not what I like. I believe this year things are going to change."
Now that his knee has had nearly two years to heal, Hanspard's focus is twofold. First, he wants to be the running back the Falcons hoped would complement Anderson's bullish style, and second, he wants to help Anderson as he rehabilitates from his knee surgery.
"I'm looking forward to being myself," he said. "If I have to run over somebody, then so be it. That's not what I like to do, though. I like to finesse people. With him being injured and me coming off mine two years ago, they're going to evaluate us both. Whatever it takes, that's what we're going to do. I'm ready for whatever takes place. I've worked hard all summer to be the best I can be, even better than I was in college and in my first year.
"I talk to Jamal all the time, but Jamal is Jamal. He's going to do what he wants to do. He's got to take it slow because this process is going to be hard, especially the first year coming back off the knee injury. It's going to be hard; it's going to be difficult. He's going to experience some soreness, some swelling. That's the process he's going to go through.
"The best bet for him is to be wise. Holding him out to just one practice a day (during two-a-day drills) is going to help him a lot. His knee is solid. It's going to take some hits on it before he finally realizes it's fine. Hopefully, his knee won't be as sore as mine was this time last year. I don't want him to be at the point where it hurts so bad that you really don't want to do anything."
Now all Byron Hanspard wants to do is be everything the Falcons hoped and he expected -- and more. His left knee still bears the scar of a surgeon's knife, but for the first time in two years, there is no pain.
And if you're not sure about his recovery, just ask -- if he doesn't answer first.
The three Falcons running backs who tried to replace injured Jamal Anderson failed to replicate his 1998 success.
Jamal Anderson (in 1998) 410 att 1,846 yds 4.5 ave 14 TDs
Ken Oxendine (in 1999) 141 att 452 yds 3.2 ave 1 TD
Byron Hanspard (in 1999) 136 att 383 yds 2.8 ave 1 TD
Bob Christian (in 1999) 38 att 174 yds 4.6 ave 5 TDs
Totals 315 att 1,009 yds 3.2 ave 7 TDs
1998 516 att 2,101 yds 4.3 ave 18 TDs 131.3 yds/game (6th NFL)
1999 373 att 1,196 yds 3.2 ave 9 TDs 74.8 yds/game (30th NFL)
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