In the NFL, players earn a reputation as being tough guys. Vikings fans are well aware of that. Brett Favre's legacy is defined by his durability and Jared Allen astounded doctors, teammates and fans alike by suffering some serious injuries and not missing any playing time.
The plight of Steve Hutchinson was much less publicized in 2009. Hutchinson suffered a shoulder injury early in the 2009 season that got progressively worse as the year wore on. It was hard to tell with Hutch because he doesn't show a lot of emotion – more accurately, he shows none most of the time – and certainly wouldn't let on with the media or opponents that his injury was more serious than it appeared.
Even now, he tries to downplay the severity of the injury, as if even a late admission would somehow be viewed as an excuse. Considering he was voted to start his seventh straight Pro Bowl and played despite the pain, no excuse was needed. Some players opt out of Pro Bowls with no injuries or minor nagging pains. Hutch knew in October he would need surgery once his season ended. Even so, he said the constant shoulder pain wasn't something that would sideline him during the Vikings' run for the Super Bowl.
"It wasn't the most serious injury you can have to your shoulder, but it was pretty bad," Hutchinson said. "Any time you have any kind of injury that requires surgery, it's a hindrance. It affects your ability and your strength, which is are important parts of your game."
By his own admission, he was at about 80-85 percent of his capacity most of the year, so he wasn't downplaying the toll it took on his game. While still one of the most dominating guards in the league, he said he was forced to get by much more on technique and leverage than his typical style of mauling an opponent into submission.
"You're not going 100 percent when you need surgery on something," Hutchinson said. "There wasn't any time that I couldn't physically do anything, but there were times when I wasn't as strong as I could have been. It was mainly just trying to maintain and not let the injury get any worse, which is a big deal toward the end of the year when everything gets weaker. You're just trying to maintain strength and that got a little more difficult as time went by."
He said he wanted his recovery timetable to get started as soon as possible once he was laid out on the surgical table. He didn't wait a couple of months to let the rest of his body heal from the rigors of a season that stretched in 22 games. He was already looking to 2010 and maintained the surgical mantra "the sooner the better."
"I had it done right after the Pro Bowl," Hutchinson said. "It's four months out now. I am starting to get back into heavy lifting and doing what I normally do. I should be good for the start of training camp."
Hutchinson said the roll the Vikings were on for most of the 2009 season kept his spirits high and the prospect of getting to the Super Bowl championship that has eluded the Vikings for 50 years has him and the rest of his teammates starting the groundswell of anticipation for the 2010 season.
"Obviously, when you finish your season in the conference championship game, there are high expectations for the following season," Hutchinson said. "Rightfully so. We start the year down in New Orleans and have to prove we belong in that game and make a run like we did last year."
Entering his 10th NFL season, Hutchinson said he is becoming aware of his own football mortality. While still playing at the top of his game, he realizes that the clock is ticking on his career. Even if he stays healthy, a best-case scenario would estimate that his career in about two-thirds completed. He went to one Super Bowl in his final season with Seattle and has come close to getting back with the Vikings. Those opportunities are rare and most players go their entire careers without having the chance to win a Super Bowl.
He said that he and many of teammates – guys like Favre, Pat Williams, Antoine Winfield and Ryan Longwell – don't have that many seasons left, which gives them a sense of urgency.
"History tells you that you only get so many chances to win a championship," Hutchinson said. "We've believed we have had the team to do that the last couple of years and expectations are only going to be higher this year. We have the pieces in place to get the job done and we're not looking back at getting so close last year. This is a new year and we have a lot of talented players in this locker room. Nothing is guaranteed, but we think we have what it takes to win the championship. If we can stay healthy, we have a good shot at getting that done."
If the Vikings could get to within a fluke penalty of making the Super Bowl with Hutchinson playing at 80 percent of his ability, their odds should be better now that he's ready to get back to doing what he does best – getting paid handsomely to knock people down and beat people up.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Healthier Hutchinson anticipates future
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