Eight months and 13 days after Sheldon Rankins left the Mercedes-Benz Superdome field riding on a cart, he walked and ran on the field at the indoor practice facility at the Ochsner Sports Performance Center.
Monday's workout was the first practice for the New Orleans Saints defensive tackle since rupturing his Achilles in the Saints' NFC divisional playoff victory over Philadelphia. And while the setting was a little less glamorous, the occasion was monumental.
Rankins was elevated from the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list on Monday, after he was cleared to return to practice. He won't jump back into work full bore. But being elevated from the PUP list is a clear indication that Rankins, entering his fourth season after registering career highs in sacks (eight) and tackles (40) last year, will be ready to play before six weeks of the regular season have elapsed.
Players on the PUP list can't practice or play in the first six weeks of the season.
"It's encouraging," Coach Sean Payton said. "I'm not going to put a time clock on when we think he'll be able to play, because obviously, the injury he had was significant. But he's worked real hard to put himself in that position.
"There's a point at which, there's nothing else to do from a (trainer) standpoint and now it's just limiting and beginning to get him up to speed practice-wise. That'll take a little bit. So that afforded us the opportunity to bring him up. He's still got some work to do, though."
"When I'm ready, I'll be ready," Rankins said. "And when that time comes I'll be out there helping this team the best I can."
His return was a pleasant surprise for the Saints as they prepare for their final preseason game, Thursday night against Miami in the Superdome.
"It's by the grace of God, man," Rankins said. "I put it all in His hands, I've had a great support system throughout this entire thing – family, loved ones, this training staff – to put me in the right position to be able to progress daily and be able to get back out there and give myself a shot to be able to help this team."
Rankins said he entered the Saints' practice facility Monday not knowing he would be cleared for practice.
"(I found out) today, when everybody else found out," he said. "I was sitting there and they told me, 'Hey, you're practicing.' 'OK, cool, I'm practicing.'
"I showed up today thinking I was going to treatment as normal, and got a beautiful surprise to be able to come out here and play football with my teammates."
The Achilles injury is the second significant injury in Rankins' NFL career. He broke his fibula in training camp as a rookie and missed the first seven regular-season games. That ordeal helped prepare him for this one.
"Sadly for me, this isn't my first time going through something serious," he said. "It's not foreign to me, but it is different. You watch your teammates go out here and battle throughout training camp, throughout OTAs and in a sense, you're isolated a bit. But if you dwell on that too much you can lose focus on what's important. For me, that was getting better every day and putting myself in a position to get back out here as soon as possible.
"I feel good. I think I'm pleased with where I'm at. We'll keep taking it a day at a time, see how things respond and see how things continue to progress. But I'm happy with where I'm at throughout this entire recovery process. I've been able to progress daily and been able to put myself in position to get back out here as soon as possible. That's a big thing for me, getting back out here, being able to run around, hit some blocks, feel some contact and play football again."
And he's doing it sooner than most projected that he would. Payton said he didn't think Rankins would be on the field, practicing, at this point.
"Honestly, no," Payton said. "I think that's the good news. He's really done a remarkable job just since training camp's begun. He and the training staff, those guys have really worked at it. We're encouraged that he's at the stage he's at right now.
"I think the feeling was that he'll be ready earlier than six weeks. How much earlier? Then you go back and forth, (and) I think it's worth doing what we're doing now."
Rankins said putting on his jersey for the first time for practice was a significant milestone.
"It's surreal," he said. "I'm not even gonna lie. It's very surreal, putting on cleats again to come out here and go through warmup lines, walk-throughs, everything like that. Seeing your teammates embrace you.
"It's kind of surreal but once the ball's put down, it's football and there's a task to be accomplished. I'll go out there and do that to the best of my abilities."