Coming Back Strong

Santana Dotson is ahead of schedule ... way ahead ... and he and the Packers could not be happier.

When the monolithic defensive tackle's 2000 season was ended by a tear in a patellar tendon during the Monday night game at Carolina last Nov. 27, the original medical prognosis suggested he should not expect to be back on the playing field before midseason this year, at best.

But Dotson, who must have read "The Power of Positive Thinking," wasn't buying that kind of diagnosis, no matter how valid it might have been.

"I was told I'd probably be ready to go in some capacity by November or so," Santana confided. "(But) I was pushing myself to be ready – for the first game, which I was, which probably was about a month, month-and-a-half ahead of schedule."

Not only did he play in the season opener, a 28-6 victory over Detroit, but the tenth-year pro has been a contributor in every game to date and started in Weeks Four and Five – against Tampa Bay and Baltimore, respectively, playing a significant role in the demolition of the Super Bowl champion Ravens.

Did he consider himself something of a medical marvel – or just a hard worker?

"I think the latter," Santana replied, exhibiting another expansive smile. "It was a lot of hard work, hard work and counting my blessings. It was one of the toughest things I've had to do – it ended up being a lot of 6-day weeks, 7 or 8 hours a day, doing a lot of rehab.

"The majority of it was done down in Houston (his home town)," Dotson continued, jesting, "so more credit probably goes to my family – my wife (Monique) and kids (son Khari and daughters Amani and Sanaa) more so than me because I was kind of crunchy at times, to say the least."

Had he ever been tempted, during the onerous and painful process, to give up? "No," was the expeditious reply. "This was the most major injury of my whole professional career and I didn't want my last play as a Packer or an NFL player, that everyone would think of me as being toted off on a cart.

"I think that pushed me a lot more than anything, just the road back to get back, to show people I could do it and would be out there for the first snap of the first game of the season. That was real important to me."

It had to be, considering the dimensions of the task he faced in meeting his self-imposed deadline.

"The rehab process (for a torn patellar tendon) is supposed to be longer than for an ACL or an MCL ligament tear," Dotson noted while explaining the essential difference. "It (the patellar tendon) is above the knee. Everybody wants to typify it as a knee injury but it's really not. The quad muscle is above the knee and I tore about half of that tendon.

"I had surgery December the 1st and I got the brace off about 6 weeks after, so then I started doing a lot more rehab."

And had there been pain?

"During the rehab process, yes," Santana promptly affirmed. "There was a lot of pain and soreness. I think mentally more than physically."

He paused, then added, "You always have to have gladiators and somebody who's going to last and play forever. And, you know, just to see the baby steps which you take just to get back to some semblance of where you were – that's a big mental road to cross." Might he be back to 100 percent now?

"The more I watch film from the previous week or each game, I can see that I'm getting stronger," Dotson said. "And I think it's more mental than physical. Just having more and more confidence, and not worrying. And being able to not think about re-injuring it. I think that's the biggest thing, getting over that mental block."

And how does he feel about his performance to date?

"I feel good," Dotson said. "I feel more and more comfortable with each snap. I want to really be a guy who adds to the defense of my team. So hopefully, by late October or November, I'll be my usual self, and feel my usual self – before the year is over."

Coach on the field
Jethro Franklin, his defensive line coach, is considerably more effusive about Dotson's contributions to date.

"He's playing admirably," Franklin asserted, with gusto. "He's playing at a real good level. He had a great game against Baltimore." The latter performance was highlighted by Dotson's sack of Ravens quarterback Elvis Grbac, forcing a fumble recovered by the Packers to blunt a major Ravens threat, mention of which evoked a wide smile from Santana.

"Definitely, since my return, it's been the biggest play I've had," the towering Texan acknowledged, adding with heartfelt appreciation, "That was a good play, yes."

Franklin, again, was more enthusiastic, referring to it as "a key play in the game." He also praised Dotson's commitment to accelerating his recovery and what it has represented to the team.

"He's ahead of schedule. (And) It helped us out defensively – having a guy from the start who wasn't expected back until about this time," he asserted. "It was a hell of a contribution, showing what he's all about, what he has been able to do in such a short time.

"And the sky's still the limit for Santana. He's a knowledgeable guy ... he's a general out there on the field; he's a team leader."

Franklin, incidentally, refers to Number 71 "as a coach on the field," a role Dotson says he takes seriously.

"I think it's real important," he said, noting, "You know, we play as a unit. And defense, especially the defensive line, we have to make sure we're all on the same page. And I feel, especially being an interior defensive lineman – playing a tackle position – that it's my job to make sure that everybody's on the same page. So you hear me echoing calls and making sure we're in the right blitz front, things like that. We all want to be in sync together, when the ball's snapped. So I think that's one of the most important things that the average person doesn't see, or hear up in the stands."

Considerable has been heard about the Baltimore defense, it was noted, but the Packers' unit also has been among the league's most miserly since the season started. How good is it?

"I think we can be very good," Dotson replied, without hesitation. "I think the scheme is outstanding..and the players have their input in the scheme. I think, to Ed Donatell's credit, that he doesn't try to force an issue. He does a great job of observing the talent that he has and conforming the defensive scheme to them. Whereas, you see a lot of defensive coordinators ... they've done it so long 'this way,' it has to be done 'this way.' But Ed's not like that.

"To be really fair, we've only been together a little over a year. For us to show the success, the strides that we have so far, is a big credit to him."

And the team as a whole? At all reminiscent of 1996 and 1997, the most recent Super Bowl years?

"I think what it reminds me of more so ... what I liken it to in the years 1996, '97 ... is the depth on both sides of the ball," Dotson said. "Those years, we were very talented, especially defensive line-wise. We always kept up a 6-or 7-man rotation, quality depth. We're the same way now.

"The wide receivers were outstanding that year, they're outstanding now. So the depth that we can bring in this year ... I think that, more so than anything, parallels '96, '97."

The conversation shifted to a more personal area – notably the fact that Santana's father, Alphonse, had been drafted by the Packers in 1965 (the second round) but had elected to play for the Kansas City Chiefs of the then American Football League.

"I think, in those days, the biggest thing was it ended up being a monetary decision," Santana said. "I think Lombardi offered him $30,000 a year, and I think Kansas City gave him $35,000. That was a big difference in '65."

Has his father ever expressed any regret over his decision?

"You know, he comes (to Green Bay) and he sees the support and the fans we have on Sundays and he wishes, from time to time, that he could have been a part of that."

Foundation is rewarding
And how, on another subject, is his Santana Dotson Foundation faring?

Mention of it elicited a proud smile from its namesake.

"I have had my foundation for the past nine years – this is the ninth year of it," he said, "and it's really becoming more rewarding to me because a lot of the kids that I first helped at the age of 17, 18. Now I'm starting to have those guys come back, and I'm getting the letters and the phone calls, the thanks and the gratitude saying 'Thanks for being there for me.' you know. 'Call if you ever need anything,' and things like that, so..."

And just how does the foundation function? "What we do is we have a scholarship grant program for kids that couldn't afford to continue their education on a collegiate level. We give those guys scholarships and grants. I use the word 'give' but we don't really 'give' it to them because, in addition to giving them that monetary donation, we're asking that same person, besides maintain a good, C-plus grade point average, we're asking them also to give 30-35 hours per semester to charities. So we're giving to them but, in the same regard, we're asking them to start giving and contributing to society in their own ways."

Any new hobbies, in addition to already professed interests such as video games or reading?

"We've just had our third child," Santana rejoined, chuckling, "so I'm doing a lot of the reading thing. I'm doing a lot of Dr. Suess at bedtime, telling those stories, yeah, reading to the kids."

With months of pain and rehab behind him, Dotson thus has reason to be enjoying himself these days – on and off the field.

As Franklin put it, "We feel good about him. I feel good about him. And he should feel good about himself ... what he's accomplished."

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