Faulk rejoins Pats after mother's death

Having returned to the New England Patriots on Tuesday after a three-week absence, running back Kevin Faulk acknowledged the obvious.

Full recovery from the knee injury Faulk suffered in an Aug. 21 preseason game is just a matter of time. The sixth-year veteran will require more than just physical rehabilitation, however, to recover from the loss of his mother.

After a long battle with leukemia, Mary Vivian Faulk, who was just 52, passed away the weekend before the Patriots' season opener. Kevin Faulk, with football on his mind but his mother in his heart, was with her down in Carencro, La., for her final days, essentially granted a leave of absence by coach Bill Belichick.

"He basically told me to go do what I had to do, to be with my family, to take as much time as I needed," Faulk said. "He said my family came first and that football would be here for me. It was a classy thing to do."

From a purely football standpoint, it was also a risky thing to do, since the absence of Faulk left the Patriots perilously thin at running back. For the opener against the Colts, the only pure tailback on the active roster was Corey Dillon, and the short body count certainly affected the New England game plan.

Faulk, 28, has been the Patriots' third-down back, and a very effective one, for most of his five seasons with the club. It was a niche he filled before Belichick arrived and one into which he has grown since the Patriots coach came aboard in 2000. If anything, his role has been expanded under Belichick, and he actually started eight games in 2003 and rushed for a career-high 638 yards.

"He's important to us," said quarterback Tom Brady. "On and off the field."

It remains uncertain, even with his return this week, exactly when Faulk will get back on the field. He did not practice on Wednesday and likely will remain a spectator all week, with the Pats scheduled for a bye this weekend. There are no guarantees that Faulk, a second-round pick in the 1999 draft, will practice next week, when the Pats resume play with an Oct. 3 contest at Buffalo.

There are some suspicions that New England officials granted Faulk the prolonged leave because his knee injury would have precluded him from playing in the first couple games anyway. New England is especially cryptic about reporting injuries, rarely specific on their nature, and has trained its players well to say nothing when asked about ailments.

On the official league injury report each of the first two weeks of the season, Faulk was listed as "out" for "personal reasons." So no one outside the organization really knows the extent of Faulk's knee injury and when he will play again. Faulk said Wednesday his knee felt "pretty good," but allowed that talking about getting back on the field and doing it are hardly the same.

In his first five seasons, Faulk missed only 10 games with injuries and has always been known as a player who possessed a high threshold to pain.

His mental and emotion thresholds, of course, were severely tested during the weeks that he spent at home, getting in as much quality time as possible with his mother, and then taking care of her affairs following her death. Mary Faulk has seen nearly all her son's games in high school, and when he played at LSU, and the tailback described her as "the most important person in my life."

The timing of his return, he allowed, was because he needed to get back to his occupation since it was the handiest preoccupation available to him. The mourning period for his mother will go on for a while, but Faulk determined that it was time to move on with his life, as well.

"This was the one thing," he said, "that could fill the [void]."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.