This is the first part of a series called Best of the Best/Worst of the Worst where I will be highlighting the highs and lows of the Andy Reid era with the Philadelphia Eagles, which began in 1999.
First let me define what I mean by the Rocky award. I don’t mean the best teammate or the nicest guy. I mean the guy who never gave up, never stopped fighting, never settled for anything less than his best. Basically, it’s the guy who epitomized the Sylvester Stallone character Rocky.
There are a number of players who I could choose.
Quarterback Donovan McNabb dealt with a lot of adversity and criticism during his 11 seasons with the team, yet handled it all with an incredible amount of class.
Jeff Garcia replaced an injured McNabb late in the 2006 season and quarterbacked a 5-5 team to a 10-6 record and an NFC East title. He has even had shirts made comparing him to Rocky Balboa.
Safety Brian Dawkins was a renowned vocal leader for the defense for 13 seasons.
But the best candidate for the Rocky Balboa Award is a 32-year old running back currently on the Denver Broncos: Correll Buckhalter.
Buckhalter played for the Eagles from 2001 to 2008. The 221-pound back was drafted in the fourth round out of Nebraska in 2001, primarily to serve as a complement to Duce Staley.
He rushed for 586 yards in the 2001 season, a record for a rookie Eagles running back.
But disaster struck before the 2002 season when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. He missed the entire season but was able to return in time for the 2003 season.
In 2003, the Eagles implemented their famous three-headed rushing attack of Duce Staley, Correll Buckhalter, and Brian Westbrook. Buckhalter led the team with eight rushing touchdowns.
But disaster struck again before the 2004 season. Buckhalter tore the patellar tendon in his right knee and missed the entire season.
Unbelievably, he did it again before the 2005 season. Same knee, same injury. He missed all 16 games again.
At this point, most head coaches, even the more patient ones, would have given up on Buckhalter. After all, he was 27 years old and had played in two of five seasons. That’s just not acceptable in the NFL, the only sport where you WILL lose your job if you can’t stay healthy.
Yet the Eagles remained optimistic in Buckhalter. He played well enough during the 2006 season that he was rewarded with a two-year contract extension. He played the next two seasons before leaving for the Denver Broncos via free agency after the 2008 season.
In his eight seasons in Philadelphia, Buckhalter played in 74 games. He was rarely injured during the season, missing just two games in the five seasons that he played. His problem was actually staying healthy during training camp.
The amount of hard work and determination that went into Buckhalter’s rehabilitation was simply incredible. I have no clue how many running backs have successfully returned from a torn patellar tendon in his knee. I know that Indianapolis Colts defensive tackle Steve Emtman was the first player to successfully return from that injury, and he did it in 1994.
I would predict that Buckhalter is the first player, at any position, in league history to return from a season-ending patellar tendon injury twice. I also think there’s a pretty good chance that he’s the only NFL player to suffer season-ending injuries (before the season started) three times in four seasons, and continue playing in the NFL.
Buckhalter’s ability to return from injuries, no matter how serious, is Rocky-like. There was just no guy keeping him down.
Most fans remember Buckhalter for his ability to always fill in nicely for one or two games a year as the starting running back whenever Brian Westbrook was injured. I remember him as the running back who never stopped fighting, never knew when to quit. He never could quit.
Buckhalter is 32 years old now and will be 33 during the 2011 season.
At this point in his career, I’m sorry to say that I don’t think that he has much of anything left. He averaged just 2.5 yards per carry last year and when you do that at age 32, you’re likely out of a job, even if you do have two years left on a four-year contract.
Then again, maybe Buckhalter will prove us wrong. That’s all he’s done his whole career.
He’s not a Hall of Famer. He’s not a Pro Bowl player. He wasn’t even good enough to be a starting running back during his career (although I think he would have done a decent job if he had been given a chance).
He was just a very reliable backup running back, a player who was a classic bull in the china shop his whole career.
He wasn’t perfect and he sure didn’t do everything right during his career. But in the end, he always came out on top.
Just like Rocky.