The long road back

Colin Branch can relate to what Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer is going through -- torn anterior cruciate ligament, torn medial collateral ligament, torn meniscus, microfracture surgery. "It sounds like he did the same thing I did," Branch said.

A year ago Branch was slated to be the Panthers starting strong safety when, during a preseason game against the New York Giants, teammate Dan Morgan accidentally landed on his knee.

Just like that, Branch's season was over.

And a long and painful rehabilitation process had just begun.

After major surgery that took several hours to complete, Branch needed the aid of crutches to get around for the next two months. He remembers that period being the toughest he's ever faced in his life.

Physically, he felt awful. Mentally, he was a wreck and it affected his personality. Normally quiet and easygoing, he became openly grouchy and snappy.

"Right after the surgery is the hardest part," he said. "You are in a tremendous amount of pain and you're right in your bed -- and I think that is when I was the most irritable."

Even a basic leg lift -- where you lay on a table with the lower leg hanging over the edge -- became a struggle for Branch. It was tough to take for a guy who had grown used to the idea of being a finely tuned athlete and could once lift several hundred pounds with his legs.

"It was very frustrating," Branch said. "I'd try to lift my leg and I couldn't even keep it straight. The lower part of my leg would collapse because my quadriceps wasn't strong enough. That would frustrate me so much."

Finally one day the leg stayed straight.

"That was a pretty good day," he said.

Eventually, after endless days of stretching and weight work, Branch worked his way up to running in the pool at Bank of America Stadium, and later on the treadmill. Finally, he was given the go ahead to begin running on grass in April.

This past Wednesday (June 1), 10 1/2 months removed from the injury, he stood talking to reporters after struggling through his second day of summer school practice. As he looked down at the brace covering his knee, he knew there was still a long way to go.

"They have me out here taking reps with the twos and threes (second and third team) and I got a lot of good work in," Branch said. "But right now my legs are a little beat up so I have to work on my cardiovascular and my cutting, too."

Whether or not Branch can regain his starting job remains to be seen.

The Panthers didn't re-sign last year's replacement Marlon McCree, who left to join the San Diego Chargers via free agency, but they did sign unrestricted free agent Shaun Williams from the Giants and drafted Nate Salley from Ohio State in the fourth round.

For now, Branch isn't real worried about the competition he'll face this summer at training camp.

That, he believes, will all work itself out.

He plans to continue working hard to get better. And in the meantime, he'll have plenty of people rooting for him, including head coach John Fox.

"There was a lot of different issues and Colin has gone through a lot of hard work to get himself back in the situation where he can come out here and practice," Fox said. "But the type of individual he is, he really attacked his rehab. We're still being cautious. Both he and (injured defensive tackle) Kris (Jenkins) are wearing knee braces and we're easing them back into it. Hopefully everything goes smoothly."

Branch thinks it will.

"Last year just wasn't my year," Branch said. "I was sitting out. But I have something to look forward to and that's the prize at the end of the whole process. Each day I'm looking forward to that prize and working hard to get my position back and get back on the field and make a difference."

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