School of hard Knox

Injured Bears receiver resolutely on long re-learning curve to recovery

I would like to report a happy story about Johnny Knox, but I really can't.

Not now anyway.

That's because when you look in his eyes, you don't see touchdowns.

You see hopes and prayers. You see a little doubt. And you see a horrific collision with a Seahawk last December that fractured his vertebrae and left him in the hospital for three days and in a body cast for 21/2 months. He appears much lighter than his listed playing weight of 185 pounds.

This doesn't look like a man who will be taking the field in the foreseeable future to participate in a collision sport played against hulking behemoths and athletic freaks.

Poor Johnny Knox looks like he would have trouble handling a stiff wind, let alone a stiff hit by the likes of Charles Woodson.

He says he lost 30 pounds after the injury and has regained 10 of those, but he still is painfully thin on his 6-foot frame. He walks a little funny too. Aside from the practice jersey and the flashy white and orange football gloves he wore Wednesday, not much about him looked like an NFL wide receiver.

You want to know about the future. For Knox, the future is tomorrow.

It's light jogging. It's riding on a stationary bike. It's lifting weights — but not free weights, machines only. It's bringing back muscle memory.

Beyond that, who knows?

He said there's no timetable set for him to return to practice. Nor is there a timetable for him to return to games. He still clings to the hope he will be ready Sept. 9 when the Bears open against the Colts at Soldier Field, but he acknowledges he could sit out all of 2012.

"It could happen, but I'm staying optimistic," he said. "I'm not in any rush. This is my spine, the core of my body I'm dealing with. It's not my knee or my ankle or my shoulder. I'm taking my time on this."

If he saw the gruesome way his body bent when 272-pound defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove torpedoed him, he might take even longer. Somehow Knox has avoided reviewing the play. And don't offer to show it to him.

"I probably don't want to see it until I retire," Knox said.

The hit may have been a turning point in Knox's career, if not his life. It might prevent him from ever playing again. It could diminish him as a player. It could make him bitter.

Or it could force him to see things he never has seen, and to appreciate opportunities he never knew existed. It could force him to rededicate himself.

It could make him a better player. It could make him a better man.

Under a sunny sky Wednesday in Lake Forest, Knox watched new acquisition Brandon Marshall line up at his position and do things he wished he could do. Marshall is about four inches taller and 65 pounds heavier than Knox.

Knox said he would try to learn other positions now that Marshall has laid claim to his old split end spot.

He called Marshall a "big-time, elite receiver," and said, "I'm just looking forward to getting out there and playing with him."

Or with anybody.

Knox said the pain from that terrible hit, and the subsequent surgery, is gone now. At least the physical pain is.

Despite the temptation to lose faith, Knox has tried to maintain a healthy outlook.

"From day one my mindset has been real positive," he said. "No letdowns. No setbacks. I'm surrounded by a great group of people, a great organization, friends, family. They keep me positive and I'm staying positive and moving forward."

I learned long ago never to doubt the strength of the human spirit. I believe Knox is strong in places that don't bulge and ripple.

But I also learned long ago that it is reasonable to doubt the strength of the human body. Knox is weak in places that he can't be as a player.

It's going to be awhile, but some day, Johnny Knox will run, jump and catch again. He will take a big hit, and he will pop up, shake it off, smile and trot back to the huddle.

It's going to happen.

Right?

"I will play again," Knox said. "Definitely."

He has to because there are so many of us pulling for him.

dpompei@tribune.com

Twitter @danpompei
CHICAGO

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