Max Starks was thrilled to return to the practice field after being away from football for 11 months, joking with teammates, soaking in the warm greetings he received from everyone and having a hard time suppressing a smile.
But he admits while everything seemed great on the outside, inside there was some anxiety during his first practice. Deep down, there were concerns. And it was easy to understand why.
Starks hadn't played football since the previous October, sidelined for the end of the 2010 season with a herniated disc in his neck that required surgery involving cervical fusion. While he had been working out during the offseason, getting back on the football field was going to be the real test.
"Any time you are dealing with the cervical spine and going in and removing something and placing something in there that wasn't in your body before, it's tough," said Starks. "You question yourself, if you can do it. There is a lot of anxiety getting back to that first practice, especially for me getting back having 11 months off and getting back and hitting for the first time since that surgery.
"Everyone around you is telling you it's strong, nothing will happen and that it won't be bad. You still have it in the back of your mind. You are thinking about it."
All it took was a little over two hours on the practice field for Starks to realize, it was going to be fine. He handled the practice well and since has played in two games and practiced daily without incident.
"Once I got the first practice in all of the anxiety left and it was about playing football at that point," said Starks. "It was a mental struggle and a physical struggle."
Overcoming that struggle is the reason Starks was voted by his teammates as the Steelers 2011 recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award, presented annually to a Steelers player who has fought back from an injury or tough situation to return to the field.
"It's a big honor," said Starks. "It's voted on by your teammates. Any time your peers recognize your work and the adversity you went through to overcome it to get back to playing it's an awesome feeling."
After his surgery last season Starks returned to the team, but this time working with the offensive linemen in what he referred to as a "glorified assistant coach." There was no major physical activity for two months, something that was tough on him.
"After surgery I was back in the facility two days later," said Starks. "I am in meetings going through that. I was here because I wanted to help my teammates out. I wanted to work out, but couldn't. I couldn't jog or run because it hurt my neck with the bounce. It was one of those things you pray you are doing the right thing and eventually you will have the opportunity again."
That opportunity came knocking when Starks, who was waived by the Steelers at the start of training camp, was re-signed days before the Tennessee game and immediately started.
"You pray for the best," said Starks. "Everything ended up working out great. Looking back at it things were tough at first, but worked out well in the end."
Starks will receive his award at the 19th Annual Arthur J. Rooney Sr. Courage House Award Luncheon benefitting Holy Family Institute at Heinz Field on November 8. Tickets for this event are $150. Please call 412-766-9020 ext.439 to purchase, or visit www.hfi-pgh.org/events/couragehouse.