SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- When the San Francisco 49ers' first-string offense took the field at practice Saturday, Jeremy Newberry went to the sideline.
For a two-time Pro Bowl center who was the soul of the Niners' offensive line for a half-decade, it was a difficult walk to make.
But until Newberry can demonstrate that his surgically repaired right knee is ready for full-time NFL contact, he is a second-stringer, behind Eric Heitmann on San Francisco's depth chart.
"If I said I was happy with it, I'd be lying," Newberry said. "I understand the approach, but am I happy about it? No."
Newberry hasn't been a second-stringer since his rookie season in 1998 -- but the ebullient, hard-hitting lineman hasn't been completely healthy for more than three years. His right knee mostly is devoid of cartilage, instead grinding on a layer of scar tissue created by microfracture surgery, a last-ditch choice that's often unsuccessful for athletes.
Yet Newberry has felt good for a comfortingly long stretch of days this summer, swimming and biking without pain in addition to most football activities. Team doctors have cleared him for training-camp workouts -- and though he'll sit out most afternoon practices, Newberry again feels like part of the team.
"I can't even remember how long it's been," Newberry said, shaking his head when asked to name the last time he felt whole. "At least the last couple of years."
Newberry played all 16 games in 2003 with a torn ligament in his left ankle, waiting for surgery until after the season. But his right knee became troublesome early in training camp in 2004, and he played in just one game in between two surgeries.
Newberry returned to play in 10 games last season, but was a shadow of his usual aggressive, trash-talking self. Skipping most practices and taking repeated painkilling shots, Newberry essentially played on one leg for as long as possible before doctors sidelined him in November.
The expensive veteran might have been finished -- but Newberry's lucrative contract was restructured last month, shifting much of his $3.5 million salary to playing-time incentives. Newberry agreed to the changes because he hoped to keep playing for his favorite team during his youth in the Bay Area suburbs and his college days at California.
Coach Mike Nolan counted on Newberry to be his offense's veteran leader last season, but Newberry's body wouldn't allow it. And though the coach still respects Newberry's dauntless attitude, Nolan feels he must start preparations for this season with Heitmann in charge.
"It takes time to establish how his body is going to hold up," Nolan said. "So far, so good, but it will be weeks before you can tell.
"He'd like to be in there working with the first group. From my standpoint, I can't do that to the other 52 guys. I know you're a player, but everything medically says that you are a risk, and that's why we did the contract thing and everything else."
The first- and second-team offenses are splitting time roughly equally, so Newberry doesn't feel shunted to the side. And though Newberry's pride chafes, the challenge still stokes his competitive bravado -- and he still teases his teammates and takes charge of drills with the authority of a veteran leader.
"I'm not worried about his toughness, his mental (tenacity) or the warrior he is," Nolan said. "He just has to show that his body is going to be there. That's his obstacle right now."
Though Newberry is healthy now, he knows his knees will never be the same. When asked if he could keep playing indefinitely, he only laughed.
"I know it's going to catch up to me sometime, but hopefully it's a couple of years down the road," he said.