OG-Ryan Lilja Remaining Optimistic Early in Training Camp
TERRE HAUTE, Ind. – There's a reason Ryan Lilja is smiling these days.
Because Lilja, the Colts' sixth-year veteran offensive guard, said after what he has been through, the grind of training camp isn't so much a grind anymore. It's an opunity to play football, to be around the guys, to be part of the team.
He has waited a long time for that, longer than he imagined and longer than he wanted.
So, really, Lilja said, there's little reason not to smile.
"It definitely feels like we can make this thing work a little bit," Lilja said Wednesday between a pair of 2009 Colts Training Camp at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.
Lilja, a starting guard from 2004-07, missed last season with a knee injury, spending the season almost exclusively on the team's Physically Unable to Perform list. Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell said during the minicamp that the team was optimistic about Lilja's progress this offseason.
On Wednesday, Caldwell said he was still liking what he saw when he saw Lilja.
"You can tell he feels good about himself," Caldwell said. "Every day I look and make eye contact with him. Every day, I look and he's got a big smile on his face, so he's happy to be out there. He's going to help us."
Of having Lilja on the field during camp, Caldwell added, "It's helped us a tremendous amount."
Which is why Lilja said he is smiling:
Because instead of rehabilitating, and instead of wondering and worrying about the future, he is able to be where he wants to be – on the field, helping the Colts' offense.
"It was a long road," Lilja said. "The season's long when you're playing. It's 10 times longer when you're hurt. It's a tough thing. To get back on the field, to play with these guys, to get in the huddle – that's the best feeling in the world.
"I'll never take it for granted again. It's great to be back on the field with the guys, competing and working with them instead of being in the training room or the cold tub or seeing some doctor. It feels great. . . .
"It's a frustrating deal to have to manage things, to have to gauge things, to be high maintenance."
Lilja, after missing last season, returned to the field during the Colts' organized team activities sessions and June mini-camp. He said during that time he was optimistic, and said Wednesday while it was great to practice in the spring nothing compares to doing the same in August.
"You can't duplicate these practices throughout the spring, so you can't really know until you get out here in training camp, hit the guys and and try to move some of these big bodies around," Lilja said. "You can never mimic things like what we're doing out here – the live action – in the spring time. You can't do it in the training room. You can't do it in the weight room, with the strength coaches. It's huge to be able to be out here and get some confidence back, and work on my steps and work on the things I need to do, to gauge how I'm responding to everything.
"So far, I'm responding really well. That makes me optimistic."
Lilja said that's a feeling he never quite got last year, when despite working throughout the season to rehabilitate he remained on PUP throughout the season.
"I'm out there," Lilja said. "I'm getting better. I'm working. I'm getting back. Am I where I need to be? No, but can I get there? For the first time in a while, I feel a lot of confidence in getting back to where I was. That part is encouraging, to be able to feel I can do this and I'm getting back to where I need to be after a long year essentially off.
"It feels good to be out there in that position again."
Lilja said although there is certainly rust, and although he is still improving, he also said he doesn't feel his missed season hurt him in every area.
"I've been around, watching practices and sitting in meeting rooms, so you keep the mental stuff going even though you can't do the physical part," Lilja said. "It's a work in progress, but it's coming along."
Lilja said this week if there was any benefit to missing a season it came in his approach to the game. He said he never stopped loving the game, but he said this week without question there is a greater appreciation now than before.
"It's a blessing to be out there at this point," Lilja said. "Did I take it for granted? Yeah. Practice used to be a grind. It used to be something you tried to get better at, but not necessarily something you looked forward to. I've been excited about this camp for several months and I'll tell you what: It's even better to get out here. It's better than I thought it would be.
"When you're not practicing and you're not playing, it's not a good feeling to be around this. To be back a little bit and doing it, that helps a lot. I'm going to be smiling for a while, just because of the simple fact that I'm out here working, trying to get better."