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OWINGS MILLS — Daniel Wilcox was dumbfounded at what he was hearing from his doctor, and saddened at the realization that an aching toe could actually endanger his career.
How could an appendage so small have such an impact on his life?
As the Baltimore Ravens’ tight end underwent surgery in January to repair damage to his muscles, ligaments, tendons and bones of the left big toe, he did so with the knowledge that it might take a year to completely heal.
"I was in pain every day," Wilcox said. "It’s a very humbling experience to have something so small take away so much. Without my toe, I can’t run, I can’t cut, and I can’t jump. I can barely walk.
"Being in a boot and on crutches has definitely brought a different perspective to my life and what I want to do. It’s something that could have ended my career. Prayerfully, it won’t. You would think something so small wouldn’t hold you out so long. It’s crazy."
Wilcox didn’t have a year to spare, though. Not in the fast-paced NFL world.
Seven months later, Wilcox is off the physically unable to perform list, practicing again and hoping to get in football shape in the nick of time for the Ravens’ season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Wilcox is in a big hurry to regain his conditioning, his timing and his position on the depth chart as a key backup to starter Todd Heap.
"It’s been very, very frustrating," Wilcox said. "It’s been a rough journey."
Since the Ravens began training camp in July, Wilcox watched from the sidelines as the team signed several candidates for his job. That includes Adam Bergen, Aaron Walker and Keith Heinrich.
"This is a scary league where if you sit out for too long somebody could come in and have your position in a matter of days or weeks," Wilcox said. "It’s not a lot of fun watching guys rotate in and out of your position and not knowing when you get back whether you’re going to have an opportunity to get your job back or earn that respect with a new coaching staff."
A former undrafted free agent out of Appalachian State, Wilcox has never felt totally secure regarding his status in the NFL. Not even after signing a three-year contract extension in 2006.
In his eyes, he’ll always be the relatively unwanted player who bounced around in short stints with the New York Jets and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before finding a home in Baltimore and forging a complementary role.
In four seasons with the Ravens, Wilcox has generated 71 receptions for 557 yards and six touchdowns.
"I’ve never had job security," Wilcox said. "I’ve been a free agent from Day One. I’ve always had a free-agent mind frame where I could be gone any day. That’s why I’ve continued to play like every day is my last."
Through a grueling rehabilitation regimen, Wilcox appears to have more football ahead of him despite enduring hamstring problems and spraining both ankles last season.
Heap has noticed a lot of progress from Wilcox recently as he strives to recapture his old versatile form as someone capable of playing tight end, fullback or lining up in the slot at wide receiver.
"Dan can have a huge influence in the success of our offense," Heap said. "He definitely brings a lot to the table as far as his receiving skills and blocking skills and hustle.
"I definitely feel for what he’s been going through. He’s battling through it and hopefully he will be ready."
Meanwhile, Wilcox is trying to absorb new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s intricate playbook while also relearning the pass patterns and blocking schemes.
"I can study, study, study, but it’s nothing compared to getting out there," Wilcox said. "It has to become second nature to me. That’s my biggest hurdle."
It’s unclear if Wilcox will make his preseason debut Saturday night against the St. Louis Rams after recently passing his physical and beginning to practice after missing camp and all of the offseason minicamps.
"He’s trying like heck to get in and play," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "So, there’s a good chance he’ll play if we don’t have a setback between now and then."
Ideally, Wilcox would like to see his first action in the Ravens’ final preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons.
He estimated that he’s at 90 percent of his capabilities, but has yet to take or dish out a hit.
"You can’t go into the season without being touched one time," Wilcox said. "I’m definitely trying to get banged around a little bit and see how the toe reacts to it.
"With a whole new coaching staff, I want to take care of their needs and make sure I take care of my toe as well. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do, and I haven’t been hit since last December. I’m not quite where I need to be yet."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.