DeCamillis coaching after broken neck
SAN ANTONIO -- Dallas Cowboys special teams coach Joe DeCamillis still wears a neck brace and has to sleep sitting up in a chair. Yet he refuses to let the broken neck he suffered when the team's practice facility collapsed keep him from doing his job.
Well, there has been one adjustment.
"In the past, I was able to run down the field after my guys on kickoffs," he said, smiling. "I'm not able to do that right now. That'll hopefully be down the road."
DeCamillis spoke Wednesday following the first practice of Cowboys training camp. It was his first interview with local reporters since the May 2 accident that he was lucky to survive.
His injury required surgery to repair broken vertebrae. Just 16 days later, he was back on the practice field for the start of summer workouts. The tough-guy approach to his recovery has impressed everyone in the organization, so much that Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips has held it up as an example to the club.
"I can show the players that hey, this guy's out there working and working hard and don't cry to me about, 'I feel tired today,'" Phillips said.
DeCamillis laughed off the idea that he's an inspiration, saying, "That's going to last for about a day, I can tell you that. They're going to be complaining about their feet and all of that anyway."
Still, he added, "That's basically how I look at it. I appreciate all those compliments and all those nice things being said. But I just look at it as I need to be out here doing my job and try to do it to the best of my ability every day."
DeCamillis was hired because that's what he does, get special teams to play better. This is his 21st year in the NFL and his 16th in charge of special teams.
The Cowboys struggled in that area in recent years. When they decided to switch coaches, Phillips brought in his pal Joe D., having worked with him in Atlanta in 2003. Their connection runs deeper through their mutual boss with the Falcons, Dan Reeves -- Phillips' longtime friend and DeCamillis' father-in-law.
DeCamillis was working with rookies inside a tent-like practice bubble when a burst of high winds made the structure essentially implode. DeCamillis and 11 others were injured, including a scouting assistant left paralyzed by a severed spine.
"I don't even want to talk about it all, to be honest with you," DeCamillis said. "Let's go forward from that day."
He certainly did, surprising everyone by walking onto a practice field with his neck brace and guiding the first OTA workout in June. Doctors said it was OK and the team took all sorts of precautions. Among the little things were giving him a bullhorn to accommodate his weak voice and having his wife drive him to and from the field.
"She put the reins on me a couple of times pretty good," DeCamillis said. "She was a reluctant participant, for sure."
Why did he push to be back so soon?
"It was to set a tone, but at the same time you can't get those days back," DeCamillis said. "I mean, the Giants were working on special teams during OTAs. Philadelphia was working on special teams during OTAs. So if I wasn't there, it would've been hard to get those days back."
The one positive to come from the accident was the outpouring of support DeCamillis received. It was especially meaningful for someone who'd only been part of the organization a few months.
"The fans, getting mail from them and the prayers that people gave to me and for me were unbelievable," he said. "The organization was great, too. The players' wives would bring us dinner and all that stuff. I mean, it was a great feeling. ... I must've had 150 to 200 calls from people and letters and all of that stuff. It was a humbling experience, also."
DeCamillis has ditched the bullhorn, depriving the thousands in the Alamodome of the salty language that was heard so clearly during the summer workouts. He will see a doctor on Aug. 10 and is hoping the brace might come off then. His biggest challenge, beyond the obstacles that come with the neck brace, is making sure he gets enough rest.
"It's sore but I'm not going to worry about it. I'm just going to keep going," he said. "I'm just trying to make sure I make it through two-a-days. That's my rehab right now."
The 44-year-old DeCamillis calls this the biggest challenge he's ever faced. When asked how hard it is being out on the field, he started to say it wasn't a fight. Then he changed his mind.
"I guess it is a fight," he said. "I'm going to keep slugging, I can tell you that."
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press
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