Safely Over Injury, Irvin Transitions To Safety

Ken Irvin's journey to rehabilitate a torn Achilles is in the rear-view mirror less than one year removed from the injury, but he is still adjusting to his new life as a safety in the Vikings defense. He chronicles his past year and what he still has to learn.

Defensive back Ken Irvin is coming up on his one-year anniversary, not with his wife or any other of life's milestone moments. Nope, on Sept. 12, one day after the Vikings' 2005 season opener, Ken Irvin will be one year removed the day his career almost ended.

It was in pregame warmups prior to the Minnesota Vikings-Dallas Cowboys game when Irvin's foot caught in the new turf of the Metrodome field, tearing his Achilles tendon.

For some, that injury can end a career. For Irvin, it made him determined to come back through a disciplined physical rehabilitation process and a deep belief in God.

When it happened, he didn't know right away that he had torn his Achilles. He said it felt like someone had kicked him or a ball hit the back of his heel.

Then the rehabilitation began.

"That was one of the toughest things I've had to endure. It just took a lot of commitment. I had to stay aggressive in my rehab two or three times a day just to get back on the football field," he said.

Irvin said he usually takes a few weeks to a month off after the season. However, this past year was different.

"I kind of attacked my rehab really aggressively. The trainers kind of had to hold me back. I wanted to come back from this, and I knew the only way to come back was to attack it hard," he said. "When I hurt myself, I just had to ask God to heal me, and I knew that when I asked him to heal me I had to believe that it was already done. So I had to attack my rehab that same way. I can't complain one bit. I haven't had any swelling, any setbacks, nothing since day one."

He was only out of commission for about three months – about six weeks in a cast another month or so in a walking boot. However, he was still able to do certain leg exercises, like leg extensions and leg curls, even with a cast on.

His limited work came during the 2004 football season, when he was riding on injured reserve and out for the season. But even before the season was finished, he was seeing immense progress in recovering from the serious injury.

"Mentally, it was exhausting, as well as physically. I've pretty much had a complete year of working out. … It was just amazing. Even in December I was out there backpedaling, even before we were in the playoffs. I take pretty good care of my body, and I think that had a lot to do with me coming back this fast," he said. "Needless to say, it was tough. But I'm back."

He says he doesn't even think about anymore. When he began rehabbing it, he wanted to make sure he started when he knew he wasn't healthy so he knew that feeling and would realize when he was getting better.

"Even when I came for the first minicamp, I never once have thought about my Achilles. That's the God-honest truth because I mentally visualized myself being healthy before it even happened," Irvin said. "I already asked to be healed and I knew it was done. I just had great peace about it."

He isn't quite at complete peace yet with his new role with the Vikings.

During the offseason, the team informed him that they wanted him to make the switch from cornerback to safety. Before his injury, he was expected to be the team's nickel back behind Antoine Winfield and Brian Williams. Now he is buried behind Corey Chavous, Darren Sharper and Willie Offord at safety.

"It's difficult for me because I still feel like I'm a corner. I still feel like I can cover. I haven't lost any speed. I still have quickness, and I just still want to come back and know that I can play corner. I think you can ask anybody around here, I can still play corner," he said, then went into the upsides of the transition. "Moving to free safety gives me a little bit more longevity in this league. I've always been a student of the game, and one thing back there I know is different for me from corner to safety is that all the film study and understanding my opponents, I can take that all into the game. When I'm at corner, I'm just isolated to one side of the field and can't see all that stuff. So now I can play faster because I can anticipate what the offense is giving to me because I know what they're doing by formation, how they're using personnel and all that stuff. When you're at safety, you get to see that. I kind of learned that last year when I traveled with the team and watching the game up the in the (press) box from like a free safety vision."

"The more you can do, the better, they say. … At some point, you can't play corner, and if you can't play corner why not see if you can make the transition to safety. That's the way I have to look at it. I have to stay positive about everything, that it's only going to benefit me in the long run."

Still, the initial request wasn't so easy to swallow. At first, it was a blow to his pride as a former starting cornerback. The same was basically true when the Vikings asked the same of Corey Chavous in his first year with the team.

"When you're a corner and they want to move you to safety, the first thing you think is, Are you trying to tell me I can't cover anymore? You don't want to look at it from the wrong side and say, ‘Are you trying to say I can't cover?' You look at the positive and say, ‘Well, it makes our team stronger and gives you longevity' and not always take it as a negative. Maybe your leadership is more important at free safety, your knowledge of the game," he said. "Defense, a lot of that stuff is communication. That's why Chavous is such a good safety. He knows the game, he knows his corners inside and out and he's able to anticipate a lot. That's the positive I can take out of it. I can really anticipate a lot of good things because of the knowledge I have of the game and the commitment I put in film study."

He will still swing out and cover receivers in the dime defense on occasion and also knows the strong safety position, and he says when you know the cornerback and both safety positions, you know the defense.

He feels comfortable with the mental part of the game at free safety, but he still said he has some adjusting to do with the angles he takes and the way he reads running plays, as well as getting used to reading the quarterback's eyes to take him to the play.

It's a different way of thinking about that the game, but Irvin proved with his injury rehabilitation that he is mentally tough enough to handle the hurdles.

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