For more than two seasons, while he logged so many hours in the Chicago Bears trainer's room that he might well have qualified for homesteading privileges back in the Old West, offensive guard Rex Tucker watched his NFL career passing him by.
Three different injuries, all of them significant and all requiring months of rehabilitation, kept the six-year veteran out of 33 consecutive regular-season games. And that's why Tucker, who last year described his plight as akin to watching the carousel spin without him, is so excited about climbing back on the merry-go-round on Sunday night.
"It's exciting, like being a rookie again, and feeling the nervous anticipation," conceded Tucker, whose diligence has allowed him to return. "I've never gone this long a period without [playing] football. I wouldn't wish it on anyone."
Barring a change of plans by Bears coaches, Tucker will start at right guard in place of the injured Mike Gandy, who is sidelined by a strained hamstring. For most of his career, the tough-minded Tucker has lined up at left guard, but switching sides is a small concession for the opportunity to return to the field.
Tucker, 27, has not played since an Oct. 7, 2002, loss to Green Bay, a game in which he suffered a dislocated left ankle and broken left fibula. But those injuries, as catastrophic as they were, represented only the beginning a series of frustrating setbacks for the former Texas A&M standout.
After rehabilitating from the 2002 leg injuries and resuming his role as a starter in camp last summer, Tucker sustained a season-ending injury to a tendon in his right ankle in the final '03 exhibition contest. This summer, it was a dislocated left elbow that slowed the seemingly star-crossed blocker.
He has lost track of the hours spent in rehabilitation, and acknowledged this week there were times he questioned why so much misfortune had been visited upon him, but that is a sentiment he hopes to purge on Sunday evening, when the Bears face the San Francisco 49ers.
There is no quit, after all, in a man who could easily have given up at any point during his three different rehabilitation periods. His pride and work ethic, though, would not permit Tucker to feel so sorry for himself that he just packed it all in for good.
Tucker was good enough to have been a Pro Bowl alternate in 2001, the only season in which he started all 16 games, and he feels he can return to his previous level of excellence. He noted, as well, that three rounds of rehabilitation have provided him a new perspective.
"It makes you work all the harder and, I'll tell you what, it makes you appreciate the game even more," said Tucker, a third-round draft choice in 1999. "You never really feel like a part of the team when you're hurt. I've got a lot of lost time to make up for."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.