Greg Ellis made a major impact for the Dallas Cowboys at outside linebacker and on Saturday was voted The Associated Press 2007 NFL Comeback Player of the Year.
Ellis went from nonfactor in Dallas to a Pro Bowler in his new position after spending most of his career as a defensive end. He had 12½ sacks, forming a dynamic pass-rushing force with All-Pro linebacker DeMarcus Ware.
"It's been great," Ellis said. "I thank God for blessing me, letting me get out there and have a good support group, starting from the doctors. We have good people here, the coaches have done a good job working me back into it. They've been telling me 'You're fine, you're fine.' It was just getting the confidence to get out there and do it."
He did it so well that Ellis drew 12 votes from a nationwide panel of 50 media members who regularly cover the league. In a season marked by strong comebacks, Ellis beat New England wide receiver Randy Moss, who was chosen on 10 ballots, and Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, selected on seven.
Ellis is the first Cowboy and also the first linebacker to win the award, which went to Jets quarterback Chad Pennington last season.
"Guys will tell you the correct thing - you don't seek after those awards," Ellis said. "But when you're blessed to get any award on a national level... our (linebackers) coach, Paul Pasqualoni, says the respect of the game is one of the reasons everybody in the NFL plays. And he's right.
"So once you've got the respect of everybody in the country, if you will, at doing something - whether it's for your efforts on coming back or for your just play on the field, whatever it is - it's a great award to get, obviously."
Ellis became a starter as a rookie in 1998 after being selected in the first round (eighth overall) out of North Carolina. He has had a knack for finding fumbles, and he has 69 sacks in his career. He also averaged 64 tackles in his first eight seasons as an end, and he had eight sacks in 2005, his first year in a 3-4 defense.
But nine games into the 2006 season, Ellis tore his Achilles' tendon, one of the most debilitating of all injuries for a football player.
Even Ellis doubted his comeback at times.
"Oh, yeah," he said with a laugh. "It went through two phases, really, two phases where I felt like that's going to be it. When it first happened, I felt like that's probably going to do it for me, because I'm familiar with the Achilles' and know guys who have torn it before. The guys I knew, most hadn't returned back to that same rare form that they were before they left the game.
"Then the second time was in training camp. Everything started going good. I started rehabbing here, then I got to training camp and started to have pain around the heel part of it."
So Ellis stopped practicing and wound up missing the first three games this season as the Cowboys slowly brought him along. But when he got back on the field, Ellis was a revelation. He had 1½ sacks in his first game, then two sacks in his first start.
"I have seen him out there week in and week out working really hard," Ware said. "To see him come back and contribute even more after that injury, it shows the courage that he has.
"He's sort of a like a DE/LB - he's two players playing in the 4-3 and in the 3-4. He contributes on both. Just to have him out there is a really big deal."
Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre got five votes, as did Cleveland running back Jamal Lewis. Seattle wide receiver Bobby Engram earned three and his teammate, defensive end Patrick Kerney, got two. So did Cleveland quarterback Derek Anderson.
Drawing one vote apiece were Giants receiver Amani Toomer, Titans DT Albert Haynesworth, Houston DE Mario Williams and Washington DE Andre Carter.