Deion Branch looked over his shoulder at a grassy hill to the side of the Seahawks' practice field. He shook his head _ and did everything but spit on that blasphemous berm.
No wonder. The Seahawks wide receiver has hopped, run and shuffled up and down it during tedious rehabilitation sessions during most of the last two years while recovering from knee, foot and leg injuries.
"I'm going to leave that thing alone. I'm done. I did pretty much everything you could do on that. I've maxed it out," Branch said, looking disdainfully at the hill Wednesday after he practiced during Seattle's mandatory minicamp.
The workout limited to position drills was Branch's first practice of any kind with the team since the days leading into last season's finale Dec. 28 against Arizona. He then elected to have a second, clean-out surgery on his reconstructed left knee.
What he called a "minor, routine" operation in early March was his second on the knee in 13 months since he shredded it making a cut on a snowy field at Green Bay in the playoffs in January 2008.
Cornerback Kelly Jennings, returning from shoulder surgery, and recently acquired defensive lineman Cory Redding, coming back from a dislocated knee cap, joined Branch in practicing for the first time this offseason.
"Man, I felt like I was back at home, on the field. Been a long time coming," said Redding, acquired in March from Detroit for Pro Bowl linebacker Julian Peterson.
Coach Jim Mora said all injured veterans and those who had offseason surgery should be ready to fully participate when training camp begins the last week of July. That includes: Pro Bowl left tackle Walter Jones (microfracture surgery on his knee), defensive end Patrick Kerney (a third shoulder surgery in 13 months); starting guards Mike Wahle (shoulder surgery) and Rob Sims (torn pectoral muscle); and center Chris Spencer (back).
Just because Branch is back on the field doesn't mean he's back to normal. As in, how he felt in 2006 when Seattle traded a first-round draft choice to New England to get the former Super Bowl MVP, and then signed him to a $39 million contract with $13 million guaranteed.
That was before he destroyed his knee.
"You will never be back to normal once you have this type of procedure done. I actually feel stronger, but it's not normal," said Branch, who turns 30 next month. "Something has been done that removed (parts) of my knee. My biggest thing is to continue to strengthen it."
Still, Branch said he will attempt to play the same way and make the same moves that made him a star earlier this decade with the Patriots.
"I'll be OK. I'll never think about my knee once I take the field," he said.
Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said everyone _ trainers, teammates, even offensive coordinator Greg Knapp _ razzed Branch in the meeting room, in the locker room and on the field during his first day back.
"I think I'm like the jumper cable for the team," Branch said. "All the guys, I think they were way more excited, screaming in the locker room when they saw me trying my helmet on."
Anything beats trudging up that hated hill.
"It was just good to be back out there with the guys. The biggest thing was doing more team things, and not being off secluded with the rest of the injured guys," Branch said. "It was cool."