Published May 21, 2010
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — The relationship between Broncos receivers Eric Decker and Brandon Stokley started off on the right foot.
Or, in this case, the left.
The two shared a connection long before becoming teammates: Both have had to deal with a debilitating foot ligament injury.
Stokley reached out to Decker soon after the University of Minnesota wideout injured his left foot in a game against Ohio State in October. Decker was diagnosed with a Lisfranc injury, a tear of the ligament that holds his first two toes in place.
Lisfranc sprains involve a long, arduous rehabilitation with no guarantees of recovery.
Stokley knows firsthand the rigors of that rehab after suffering a similar injury while playing for the Baltimore Ravens in 2002.
He came to know about Decker through Jedd Fisch, the former Gophers offensive coordinator who's since taken a position with the Seattle Seahawks. Fisch, once the receivers' coach for the Broncos, asked Stokley to say a few encouraging words to Decker after he got hurt. Lift his spirits.
Stokley took it a step further by forging a friendship.
Periodically, Stokley would send texts. Frequently, he would make phone calls, just to get a status report.
The checkups from Stokley were very much appreciated.
"It's an emotional roller-coaster at first, trying to figure out what's going on, not sure how severe the injury is," said Decker, who had surgery in November and a procedure in March to remove hardware. "Brandon was definitely reassuring. Look at how successful he's been since it."
Even with his foot mending, Decker still was taken in the third round by the Broncos. Decker, along with first-round pick Demaryius Thomas, will be counted on to help lessen the loss of Pro Bowler Brandon Marshall, who was dealt to the Miami Dolphins in the offseason.
Before Decker got hurt, he was considered among the top receivers in the country and many scouts were projecting him as a first-rounder.
While his final year was cut short, he still became Minnesota's leading receiver with 227 career catches and 3,119 yards.
Running routes is still a ways off for Decker. He was mainly a spectator at camp this week, as was Thomas, who broke his left foot doing drills just before the NFL combine.
"Right on schedule, maybe a little ahead," Decker said. "I feel very good about my progression. I haven't had any setbacks — no pain, no swelling. Just positive signs."
For that, he credits Stokley. He's the one that warned Decker not to rush back.
"To get a phone call from him saying, 'Hey, I've been through this injury, I'm thinking about you,' it helped me prepare," Decker said. "He let me know about the ups and downs, the mindset he took into it."
Now at Dove Valley, Decker doesn't have to worry about his text and cell minutes piling up anymore. Instead of reaching out to Stokley electronically, he can just sidle up next to his locker.
"I get to come in and learn from him," Decker said. "He knows how to be successful."
In his long NFL career, Stokley has contended with knee issues, dislocated shoulders, concussions and an Achilles' tear. Those, Stokley said, don't begin to compare to coming back from a Lisfranc operation.
"I had mine in the dark ages; they weren't doing many then," said Stokley, who's entering his 12th season. "To come back from that was the toughest by far."
The recovery took him almost a year before he felt right, before the pain eased in his right foot. Stokley thinks he tried to come back too soon, especially because he had just signed with the Indianapolis Colts in 2003 and wanted to impress his new team.
His advice to Decker was simple: Don't rush it.
"I was go, go, go, go and wasn't really listening to my body," Stokley said. "Listen to your body."
Given all his guidance, Decker feels he owes Stokley something more than his gratitude. A meal at an expensive steakhouse, perhaps? An offer to baby-sit Stokley's kids?
"I think we'll keep it to a round of golf and dinner," Decker said, smiling.
Works for Stokley.
"I was just helping a guy out," Stokley said. "I just wanted to let him know that it was going to be all right and everything was going to work out."