- Jerry Bonkowski, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- For the past five years, Tommie Harris has been big, bad and boisterous; the kind of guy that thrives on being the center of attention.
But take the Bears' defensive tackle out of his element -- the starting lineup or regular practices -- and you get the "anti-Tommie," a full-of-life guy who is suddenly and uncharacteristically flummoxed.
After starting training camp seemingly good as new more than 10 days ago, he's been held back from practice the past couple of days, primarily watching from the sidelines rather than his usual spot in the defensive line.
While missing another day of practice on Monday was notable in and of itself, Harris surprised reporters when he revealed that he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his troubled left knee in March, primarily to see if a previous surgery in January 2008 may not have been as successful as doctors thought.
"I just had [surgery] just to go in there and look at what happened the last time and why [soreness] is still coming back and different things are showing up," Harris said. "We went in and there wasn't anything major, just some scar tissue from the other surgery. Now, we're just playing it by ear."
The March surgery had long been rumored, but neither Harris nor the Bears ever confirmed it until Harris spilled the beans Monday.
It further explained why Harris was so limited during the six OTAs (organized team activities) held in April and May, even though he and head coach Lovie Smith both promised he'd be at full strength when training camp came around in late July.
The Bears say they're resting Harris due to soreness in the knee, as well as a slight hamstring aggravation.
Instead of being able to brag about himself and his exploits or talk trash about opponents, the guy who is always good for a great TV moment or bold quote in print is now left in a subdued holding pattern of sorts.
"Tommie's [knee] is just taking a little bit longer, but we have plenty of time," Smith said after Monday's practice at Olivet Nazarene University. "We're not playing tomorrow, and right now, I don't want him to be out there. It's probably as much me as it is him not wanting him to be out there until he's ready to go."
But that's little solace to Harris.
"I'm frustrated," Harris said. "I would love to be out there."
Because Harris is still complaining about soreness in his knee, it's not really a surprise that he's being handled more like a delicate ballerina than a tough defensive tackle. Smith and the team would rather err on the side of caution.
"I wouldn't say [Harris' condition is] a setback," Smith said. "You go through training camp and soreness creeps in a little bit, and that's all that happened as far as I see it. It's not like you've seen Tommie go down with an injury or anything like that, but after you've practiced this long and as hard as the defensive line is going, these things happen."
And while he may have come into camp at full strength, Harris now finds himself playing catch-up and hoping he won't have to go through another season like he did in 2008, when his ailing knee forced the Bears to keep him out of a substantial number of midweek practice sessions.
"I guess it's just reps," Harris said. "I had surgery in March, so I didn't get a chance to do a lot of stuff that my teammates were doing. They're far ahead of me, so I'm really just starting to catch up."
Smith tried to deflect some of the concern about Harris' health by noting he could be back in practice on Tuesday.
"Tommie has a little bit of soreness in his knee, so we're holding him out," Smith said. "But the plan is, if the guy is ready to healthy and ready to go and we don't feel like we're putting him at risk or anything like that, he'll play. We thought he would be able to get a little more work in today, but he wasn't able to. We'll give it another shot tomorrow."
That's what Harris wants to hear. He's not the patient type, someone who likes to bide his time. With guys like utility defensive lineman Israel Idonije and rookie DT Jarron Gilbert waiting in the wings, Harris doesn't want a little soreness to be enough of a concern that Bears coaches start questioning his ability.
"Do I have confidence? Yes, definitely, I have confidence in myself -- a lot in my knee," Harris said. "I've been playing on one leg, everything. I can play this game. I have confidence; it's a mentality."
Perhaps more than anything, the Bears are trying to nip any prolonged flare-up of the knee, particularly in light of how it limited his play for much of 2008.
Harris missed two games last season, but still managed to start 13 of the 14 games he did see action in. But his production definitely tailed off, with just 33 tackles, the fewest of his five-year career with the Bears. Yet despite the knee issue, he still managed to keep his sack level on pace with previous seasons, nailing opposing quarterbacks five times, and even recorded a single-season career high in tackles for loss (nine).
That's why this season means so much for Harris. He wants to return to being the same boisterous free spirit Bears fans have come to know and love over the past half-decade.
And that's why this time off has him bothered.
"I think the hardest thing is knowing how political this business is and having to wear pads and sit on the sidelines, acting like I'm going out there and different stuff like that," Harris said. "It's a bit frustrating, but I'm just going to hang in there [and] just show up and listen to what they say. I trust and believe in what they're saying and hopefully this plays out."
Jerry Bonkowski is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.