WESTFIELD, Ind. – There had yet to be a practice. Not one. Not even a walk-through.
Chris Ballard was offering his State of the Colts – pre-training camp version – and rattled off this name, that name. He addressed the increased expectations that would follow his Indianapolis Colts into their second summer at Grand Park Sports Campus, and explained how he valued the access camp provides to the team’s fan base.
Things were moving along nicely, until his mind drifted toward a second-year wide receiver out of Clemson.
“Deon Cain,’’ Ballard said.
He paused. It was one of those two-or-three second pauses. It oozed emotion, respect.
“First, I’m very proud of the kid,’’ Ballard said. “To watch him work over the last year has been . . . I think Deon will tell you this. He’s probably grown and matured more in the last year.
“You know, sometimes setbacks can be a positive, and he turned it into one and man, he worked his ass off.’’
Cain was an attention-grabber last summer. The rookie seemed to offer daily highlight material with over-the-top receptions or catches in tight coverage while pinned to the sideline.
Then, the preseason opener at Seattle. In his first game as a pro, Cain tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
Just like that, it was over.
“At first, I didn’t know,’’ he said. “I just knew something weird was going on. You feel that certain pull. Once it happened, it happened. Once I heard back from the doctor, I knew what it was like from the final standpoint.
“I was down at that point, but all I knew was I had to get to work. I want to play football, and I want to be successful. I knew what it was going to take.’’
It took months of grueling rehab. His personal road-to-recovery was chronicled on Colts.com. The video showcased Cain’s resolve and relentless approach, as well as the manner with which he attacked every day.
That caught the eye of coach Frank Reich.
“The consistency,’’ he said. “That’s what it takes to rehab from something like that. Receivers . . . Deon came in last year and made a bunch of splash plays. I think the adversity that he has had to go through can hopefully teach him that the consistency that he’s had to display in his rehab to get back to here, you carry that onto the field as a wide receiver.
“That’s the way you need to approach playing wide receiver. It’s not just about making a big play. It’s about showing up on every play. Just like when you’re rehabbing, you can’t skip any steps. So hopefully, this will be a big positive for him.’’
The overriding positive has involved Cain enduring a heavy load in camp despite being less than a year removed from ACL surgery. He’s been given a day or two off, as have several players coming off injury/surgery, but if a casual observer didn’t know he was watching a player coming off ACL surgery, he probably wouldn’t know otherwise.
It doesn’t appear Cain’s favoring the knee in the least.
“No. No sir,’’ he said. “It’s really all good. I had a great offseason program with the trainers and that stuff. So I’m out here feeling good, flying. So I’m really just trying to keep on progressing every day.
“I just love being back out here with the guys again competing. Yeah, I had a little bit of rust to knock off just from like competing with some of the other guys because I haven’t really been out there in the flow.
“But the biggest thing out here is that I’m back out here and playing football again.’’
As difficult as the offseason of rehab was, Cain insisted he benefited from its demands. He leaned on others who had dealt with similar injuries, including former Colts standout wideout Reggie Wayne and current teammate Malik Hooker.
“I learned more about myself, just like mental toughness and stuff because I had to fight through a lot of different things coming from an ACL injury,’’ he said. “I think that really helped me and molded me into a better football player.
“Now I’ve got a lot more love for the game because once it was taken away from me, I had to learn from all different types of aspects how this game goes: film room, studying, all that stuff. I really feel like it’s helped me to be a better football player.’’
Ballard said during the offseason it might be mid-season before Cain has recovered to the point he’s truly back in form. Until then, he’ll deal with position competition that includes T.Y. Hilton, Devin Funchess, Chester Rogers, Zach Pascal and rookie Parris Campbell.
“Man, these guys are ballers out here,’’ Cain said. “I’ve never been around this much talent.’’
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