Updated: December 3, 2009 at 12:00 am
ENGLEWOOD – Correll Buckhalter bounces runs outside with ease, using speed that’s quite surprising for a running back who turned 31 years old in October.
Buckhalter’s success story for the Denver Broncos is about more than just defying age. He was supposed to retire long ago after multiple knee surgeries. Instead, he’s faster than ever.
His improvement over time doesn’t make much sense. Especially considering the prognosis in 2005 after Buckhalter’s third major knee surgery, which came after he tore his right patellar tendon a second time. Philadelphia Eagles trainer Rick Burkholder held onto the news until Buckhalter came back to play.
“He said ‘Buck, I never told you, but the doctors thought you probably wouldn’t play football again,’” Buckhalter said.
For the first half of his career, Buckhalter was one of the NFL’s hard-luck cases. He suffered three major injuries, none of which came in a regular-season game.
In 2002, he blew out the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during a minicamp practice. Then in 2004, he tore his right patellar tendon during a preseason game. A year later, he tore it again in practice.
“You get injured and injured there’s something inside you going to make you feel ‘Do you want to continue to go through this?’” Buckhalter said.
Buckhalter’s comeback was impressive enough, but coming back with better speed is almost unheard of. Yet, from the early days of Broncos minicamp it was apparent Buckhalter was perhaps Denver’s fastest tailback. He is averaging 4.8 yards per carry, best among Broncos running backs, and has the longest run for Denver this season, a 45-yard touchdown against Cleveland.
“A lot of guys tell me ‘I didn’t know you were this fast, I didn’t know you could run like this,’” Buckhalter said. “I think it was surprising to a lot of guys, especially with the knee injuries I’ve sustained, that I could get it done at a high level.”
Buckhalter figures he got faster for two reasons: the rehabilitation after each of his first three surgeries strengthened all the muscles in both legs. Also, he lost weight to compensate for his reconstructed knees. He came into the NFL as a 230-pound power back, but has gradually slimmed down to his current weight of 218 pounds.
“Buck came in a lot heavier, a bigger back,” said Broncos safety Brian Dawkins, a longtime teammate of Buckhalter’s in Philadelphia. “He’s much lighter now, took the time to dedicate himself to his body, changed his eating habits a lot, trying to eat clean and worked out as hard as he could to get back.”
Buckhalter said he doesn’t know how much longer he will keep playing, though he figures he feels good and could continue playing at a high level for a few more years.
“It’s just a blessing, that’s the only way I look at it,” Buckhalter said. “I feel like I did in high school.”