Keith begins comeback

A blast from the immediate past materialized Wednesday morning on the practice field at 49ers training camp. It was the exuberant, charismatic presence of third-year safety John Keith, who practiced with the team in full pads for the first time since his sophomore NFL season ended on the play it started, when Keith blew out his left knee on the opening kickoff of the season opener last year against Atlanta.

Keith looked a lot like the aggressive and instinctive player who displayed a hard-hitting flair and star potential as a rookie starter in 2000 before that season also came to a sudden and similar end with a season-ending injury on a kickoff after just six games.

That leaves Keith trying to come back now as damaged goods with a history of major injuries. The team already has moved on with several contingency plans if Keith can't make it back - signing free agent Tony Parrish as the starting strong safety, developing third-year player Ronnie Heard and second-year player Al Blades at the strong safety position, and also drafting swing safety Kevin Curtis in the fourth round this spring.

None of that matters to Keith, however.

"This is the NFL, and I'm still out there," Keith said. "Any time you can step on the field, you have to prove yourself. Whether you're a veteran or a rookie, you have to prove yourself, and there's no difference in my case. I feel like the team knows I can play and they know what I can bring to the table. My biggest thing is I have to stay healthy and show them that I'm going to be healthy."

Niners coach Steve Mariucci and defensive coordinator Jim Mora both said Tuesday that Keith will be brought along slowly during the remaining weeks of training camp. He was held out of some drills Tuesday, but appears ready to practice without any limitations by the end of this week. He probably won't play in Saturday's preseason game against Kansas City, but should be ready for live game competition in San Francisco's final three exhibition contests.

"We're bringing him back gradually," Mariucci said. "John Keith is fighting through some injuries and some surgeries to get back on the field and he's going to give it his all, to see if he can make this team. It's good to have him back out there. He's done everything in his power to rehab and become healthy again. Now we'll see where it goes."

Said Keith: "It's just going to take some time. I'm gonna have to fall down and get back up and make mistakes and correct them. It's just a process. I think everything, once I get back used to everything, it will fall in place for me."

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