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Medically cleared, Houston TE Owen Daniels eager to play again

Houston Texans tight end Owen Daniels cut sharply, caught a short pass and sprinted 20 yards down the middle of an empty practice field.

The 6-foot-3 Daniels, who made the Pro Bowl after the 2008 season, said Thursday he hopes to be ready for the regular season opener against Indianapolis after getting medical clearance to play again.

Daniels tore his right anterior cruciate ligament midway through last season and underwent surgery last November. He visited Dr. James Andrews on Wednesday, and the renowned orthopedist finally declared Daniels' knee fully healed.

Daniels is expected to practice with his team on Monday, ending an arduous 10-month recovery.

"It's going to be interesting, it's going to be strange, but I can't wait," Daniels said. "I don't know if I'll sleep Sunday night. It'll be like my first day of football, back when I was like in third grade."

Daniels was on schedule to be ready for the start of training camp until the spring. He started feeling soreness in the reconstructed knee in April and May, and doctors found a stress fracture in his right kneecap, a potentially career-threatening setback.

"We were blindsided by it, cause we were just going in and expecting to see a little inflammation or what have you," Daniels said. "When the doctor said it was a stress fracture, we were all shocked."

Doctors were puzzled how Daniels could've sustained such a rare injury during his rehab. Daniels said he continued to work as the soreness increased, but doesn't think he was overdoing it.

"I think it was just something that was meant to happen, and the good thing was it could've broken all the way through and broken off," Daniels said. "So we were playing with fire there for a while, really working hard and not knowing what the problem was."

Daniels spent the next two months virtually immobilized, wondering when — or if — he'd ever play again.

He consulted with several doctors across the country, and some recommended inserting a screw in his knee, a procedure that might've forced him to miss the 2010 season. Andrews suggested the more conservative route, letting the injury heal on its own.

All Daniels could do was make monotonous visits to the Texans' training room for treatment.

"It was a long time for me, after the stress fracture diagnosis, sitting around," Daniels said. "I couldn't lift any weights, I couldn't jog, I couldn't ride a bike. That really tested my patience. They were doing everything they could for me, though."

Finally, after eight weeks, tests showed that the fracture was improving. Daniels resumed his rehab soon after.

He's still a long way from playing condition, though, and plans to lobby coach Gary Kubiak to let him play in Houston's last preseason game, against Tampa Bay next Thursday.

"I'm trying work as hard as I can," Daniels said. "I'm not in football shape, I can pretty much guarantee that, because I haven't been running around with these guys and banging around. It's different than running routes with a trainer, and running wind sprints, even just pushing a sled. It's a lot different."

Daniels caught 70 passes for 862 yards and two touchdowns in 2008, his best season. He and Andre Johnson formed the most prolific receiver-tight end pairing in the NFL that year, with 185 total receptions and 2,437 yards.

The All-Pro Johnson, who's topped 1,500 receiving yards in the past two seasons, is as happy as anyone to see Daniels back.

"I'm very excited about it," Johnson said. "He's a big part of our offense. I was watching him out here the other day, working out. You can tell he's got some good moves, cause he was getting after it really hard. It'll be great to have him back out here."

Daniels is confident that he can make all the moves on the field that he could two years ago.

"I don't think I'll be able to be the guy that I was if I'm going to think about that type of stuff, or worry about if it might happen again," he said. "I'm not at any greater risk now than anybody else out here, to have that injury again. I'm just going to go with it."

Now that he's so close to returning, Daniels said he values the chance to play football as much as he ever has.

"I've always really appreciated it. I don't think I've ever taken it for granted," he said. "But if there's even a little ounce of that, it's definitely not there anymore.

"I've always loved playing football, and I cherish every moment of being out here, being with the guys and being in that type of an environment. Having that almost taken away from you for a season and a half would've been tough to deal with."