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Tennessee Titans' Marc Mariani tries to regain form

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Tennessee Titans' Marc Mariani tries to regain form after broken leg

Many of the Titans treat offseason workouts as a necessary evil. Not Marc Mariani. He’s having a blast.

“There’s been a lot of emotion,” he said. “Just putting a helmet back on and getting out there has been huge for me. It’s been great to get back out there with the guys.”

Seeing Mariani on the practice field is a testament to modern orthopedic medicine and his dedication. In a preseason game against Arizona on Aug. 23, he broke the tibia and fibula in his left leg on a punt return. Replays show a compound fracture as the leg snapped near the calf.

“Nine months ago, the bone was sticking out of there,” Titans offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said. “For him to be practicing at this point is pretty amazing.”

On the night of the injury, a number of teammates said they heard the bone snap. Mariani remembers the sound, the excruciating pain and the horrific sight of the bone trying to poke its way out of the tape around his ankle. He also remembers the looks of alarm on the faces of officials.

“It was scary. It was awful,” he said. “You’re lying there in pain and you’re thinking, ‘This is bad. This is real bad.’ ”

If you have the inclination and the stomach for it, there are 19 videos of the play posted on YouTube, accounting for more than 136,000 views. Videos of a similar injury suffered by Louisville basketball player Kevin Ware in the NCAA Tournament this year have more than 5.5 million views. Clearly, there is a certain morbid fascination with such things.

Mariani doesn’t need to see it again. He lived it.

“That’s the low point,” he said.

The terror of that night soon gave way to concerns about his future. He wondered if he had played his last down of football.

“There was some doubt. If I said there wasn’t, I’d be lying,” he said. “After the surgery, the rehab was tough. September, October and November were the hard physical therapy months. You’re just pushing yourself, trying to see what the leg can do.”

He has recovered to the point that he’s participating in all noncontact work with wide receivers and on special teams even though he readily acknowledges some physical limitations. His goal is to get back to full speed for the opening of training camp late next month so he can compete for a roster spot.

“I’ve still got a lot of work to do. I’m ready to go and ready to participate but getting back to where I was — who knows?” he said. “There’s always that uncertainty. There’s always question marks.”

One of those questions marks surrounds Mariani’s future with the Titans. Last season, the Titans left training camp with five receivers plus return man Darius Reynaud on their roster. With Loggains bringing a different approach to the offense, they might keep a sixth wideout this season. But that’s still a numbers crunch for players like Mariani.

It’s a given that Kenny Britt, Kendall Wright and second-round pick Justin Hunter will be on the roster on Week 1. Damian Williams has had 45 and 30 catches in the past two seasons and appears to be in the plans. Free-agent signee Kevin Walter is in the mix. Third-year pro Michael Preston has considerable raw ability and has caught coaches’ eyes.

And what of Nate Washington? Despite speculation that he might be traded or cut because of his age (he’ll be 30 when the regular season starts) and $4.2 million salary, the Titans seem inclined to keep him.

That brings us back around to Mariani. Even before the injury in the 2012 preseason, it was not a sure thing he was going to make the roster. His situation is further complicated because Reynaud put up return numbers last season that were similar to Mariani’s stats in 2010, the year he made the Pro Bowl as a return man.

“There’s a lot of competition, which is awesome,” Mariani said.

On top of that, Mariani can’t show coaches everything he can do because he’s not yet back to his pre-injury self. In that regard, he gets the benefit of the doubt because Titans coaches remember how he played in 2010 and 2011, his first two years in the NFL.

“The one advantage we have in evaluating Marc is we kind of knew what he was before he got hurt,” Loggains said. “We have a background with him. He just needs to get healthy.”

But even if there’s not a spot with the Titans, Mariani is a survivor. If he is able to play in preseason games, it could serve as an audition for the other 31 NFL teams. It’s no secret that Rams coach Jeff Fisher has an affection for players he drafted during his Titans tenure.

Mariani’s an underdog but that’s nothing new. Few expected him to make the Titans roster in 2010 when he was a seventh-round draft pick out of Montana. His personality, enthusiasm and performance, particularly in the return game, have made him a fan favorite.

Now, coming off a career-threatening injury, Mariani’s attempt to stick with the Titans is one of the most interesting sidebars to the offseason.

“I definitely have a new perspective because sitting on the sideline is not where I want to be,” he said. “What fuels me is wanting to compete and wanting to be the best — just wanting to get back out there on Sundays.”

It would be his biggest return yet.
 

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