Long cleared for drills after recovering from staph infection
Updated: June 20, 2007, 11:32 PM ET
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Rien Long eagerly pulls the bandage off his right ankle and runs his finger over the purple skin surrounding the nearly three-inch sliver on the back of his leg.
He can't feel the skin around the hole that was once so open the Tennessee defensive tackle could see his Achilles tendon as if he were looking at a biology book.
Yet Long smiles now. Doctors cleared him Wednesday for limited drills and coach Jeff Fisher expects him to be fully ready for training camp in late July.
It's been a long time coming after Long went from a promising veteran pass rusher to someone surviving two surgeries and a staph infection that nearly cost him his foot over the course of the 2006 season.
"They didn't tell me to begin with [about the staph infection], but 24 hours after they were like, 'It could've gone down a different road.' We could've been talking about something else, or I might be missing a foot," Long said Wednesday.
"Luckily, it didn't go down there. It just ate up all my skin. Luckily, I have more skin because I happen to be a big man," he said.
The 6-foot-6, 300-pound Long is also a big piece of the Titans' plans to improve a defensive line that had 19½ of the team's 26 sacks last season. Team officials and Long had high expectations in 2006 for the tackle who won the Outland Trophy as a junior at Washington State in 2002.
But the first practice of training camp wasn't even an hour old when Long went down. When he tried to stand up he knew he had done something serious.
"Apparently, there was a lightning strike, and it hit me, no one else. I was the only one who got hit," Long joked.
The tendon was severed cleanly, so the Titans placed him on injured reserve. Doctors operated and stitched the tendon together.
Unfortunately, Long re-injured the tendon walking up stairs shortly after being cleared to shed his protective walking boot. Doctors recommended surgery again to tighten the tendon, but Long started feeling ill and called his mother in November.
"He called me to tell me how sick he was feeling," Bailey Cunningham said. "He was having to go in for tests. At the beginning, we thought maybe it's a flu bug or something. Who knows?
"The moment we heard staph, that's obviously when it was the scariest part. That's when I was on the plane and back out there," she said.
She flew to Nashville from her home in Anacortes, Wash., praying throughout the flight. After a week, she took Long back to his home -- still hooked up to tubes and a machine he calls the vacuum cleaner, suctioning fluids away from the wound doctors had to leave open.
"We had to feed him intravenously with the meds and have in-home nurse care come and check and change that bandage. It was amazing -- the whole journey to be able to see inside right to his Achilles. It was that open," Cunningham said.
"That horrible disease could be so devastating, and his skin is still not healed from that," she said.
Once the infection had cleared, Long then had to endure skin grafts with doctors using skin from his right hip to close up the opening. He then went back into a walking boot and onto crutches.
Long said the healing skin felt as if it were on fire until just recently. He tried to occupy himself by remodeling his home -- not the best choice for someone stuck in bed or on the couch.
"What he endured in one season, I haven't endured in all five of my seasons," fellow tackle Albert Haynesworth said. "That was tough. He kept fighting, kept coming back even though his contract was up, he had a lot of stuff on his plate and he finished it."
Long, who has 9½ career sacks, knows this season is like a second chance to turn his one-year deal into a much bigger long-term contract.
"As hungry as I was going into that last season, it's a whole different hunger now. There's a lot to prove, a lot to prove to myself," Long said. "It's a lot more drive now, more than ever."
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press