The subject was Brent Celek, and the double sports hernia surgery plus hip surgery the Eagles' starting tight end underwent at the end of the 2011 season. Clay Harbor, Celek's backup, was amazed.
"That's bigtime," Harbor said during Eagles OTAs this week. "My rookie season  I played with one sports hernia. I was struggling ... it was hard. I remember Brent coming off [the field] midway through the season saying, 'I really gotta get this checked out. It's really starting to hurt.' We found out he had a [double] sports hernia, and had been playing with it all season. That's really incredible. As well as he was playing? As high a level as he was playing on, blocking, running, he was in a lot of pain ... it's tough to run when you have that injury, to break down, and he was doing such a good job with that, it really speaks to his character, and how hard he works.
"He loves to play the game ... he'll do what he can to be on the field," Harbor said. "He was definitely pushing through it. But if you watch on film, he was playing at such a high level, people had no idea until the end of the season."
Celek caught five passes for 156 yards Dec. 18 in beating the Jets, six for 86 in the season-ending win over the Redskins. In fact, Michael Vick seemed to ignore Celek early, then gravitate more and more to him later, afrer Celek was banged up. Forty-four of his 62 catches last season came in the final 10 games, only 18 in the first six.
Celek has done what Harbor and 2011 practice squad tight end Brett Brackett are trying to do -- he has made the transition from being pretty much just an oversized pass-catcher in college to a reliable inside target in the NFL who also can be depended upon to block like an offensive linemen. There are more athletic pass-catching tight ends than Celek and better blocking tight ends than Celek, but there aren't many who combine the two skills as consistently.
It seems like Celek just arrived from Cincinnati, but suddenly, this is his sixth season. Only Pete Retlaff and John Spagnola have compiled more receiving yards as an Eagles tight end. At 27, Celek is a veteran leader who sets the tone for others.
"I was in pain ... it was something I could kind of manage," Celek said Wednesday. "The coaches and the training staff did a good job of allowing me to manage it in the right way. It was just something I had to get my mind over. If you sit there and complain and say 'this hurts,' your spirits are going to be down and you're going to play like that. Kinda just act like nothing's wrong, know that at the end of the season I'm going to get it fixed, and that's what I did."
Celek isn't sure when his problems began, but said "it could have been the beginning of the season." He said recently he feels better than he has in three or four years.
Some folks noticed I left undrafted rookie Cliff Harris out of my piece on the Eagles' return game in Wednesday's Daily News. I was writing about the guys who are competing right now. Harris goes to Oregon, which is on the quarter system and doesn't hold commencement until June 18. Because of an NFL-NCAA agreement, teams are not allowed to bring players in for camps until their class graduates. If your school is on the semester system, you're usually available from early May. Quarter schools, not so fast.
So Harris will show up at Lehigh next month having missed all the spring work. No matter how good he is, winning a spot in the Birds' secondary AND a return job with that handicap is going to be quite a feat. I think a guy like fourth-round rookie Brandon Boykin, who seems very likely to be active on game day as either a nickel or dime corner, is much more likely to end up returning kicks this season.
Casey Matthews remained sidelined with a sore back Wednesday. Joining him was second-round rookie defensive end Vinny Curry, with an ankle tweak suffered Tuesday.