All Branden Albert wanted was a breakthrough. One finally came on a sticky morning in South Carolina.
It was mid-August, and the Dolphins were at Wofford College practicing against the Carolina Panthers. Albert wouldn’t participate, still limited by the major knee injury he sustained in November.
Doctors and coaches were pleased with his improvement. But Albert, the Dolphins’ star left tackle, still worried that his reconstructed right knee would not be ready for the regular season, which for Miami kicks off Sunday against the Washington Redskins.
“I still couldn’t run right, I still couldn’t do things,” Albert recalled. “[Then] one day I woke up and we were in [South] Carolina, I was like, ‘I can push off a little bit more.’ I started working and started dropping more weight and I thought, ‘It’s time for me to start playing football again.’ ”
He will Sunday. Ten months after shredding his right ACL and MCL, Albert makes his triumphant return to the football field.
Albert will start at left tackle as the Dolphins open their 50th season, one loaded with expectations and consequence. From owner Stephen Ross on down, the organization believes this is the most talented Dolphins team in years.
Ross expects that talent to produce. Joe Philbin likely has one last chance to make the playoffs, or this season will be his last as the team’s coach.
But for all the money spent and work done this offseason, the fate of the season (and Philbin’s career) could hinge on how Albert’s knee responds during a 16-game grind.
Albert is not yet at 100 percent. He might not even be at 90. But the Dolphins believe he’s healthy enough to contribute — and better than any alternative they have.
No one can say for certain exactly how Albert will perform Sunday. But everyone knows this: the adrenaline — and perhaps tears — will be flowing.
“He loves the game,” Dolphins right tackle Ja’Wuan James said. “I know his emotions are probably going to come out, but he’s also going to try to stay calm at the same time.”
Said center Mike Pouncey: “I know for him, it’s going to be a lot of emotions surrounding him before the first play of the game. … I know all of us are excited to have him out there. I know he’s more excited than any of us, because it’s something that most guys don’t come back from. But I know he’s going to go out there and be the same guy he’s always been.”
Pouncey and James saw a much different Albert in Detroit on Nov. 9. They feared the worst when Albert was carted off the field in the first half; seeing his face during the intermission confirmed those fears.
“To see him at halftime in the Detroit game, sitting in the training room, not knowing what was going on, emotions going crazy; now I’m about to see him play in that first game, it’s a good feeling,” James said.
At the time, Albert put on a brave face. He pledged that day he would return. But privately, he wasn’t so sure. He was worried that his career might be over.
First came surgery to repair the ligaments. Then he went back to work.
The progress crawled at first; there was a time he could barely get out of bed to greet his visitors.
But over time, he improved.
Albert didn’t really have an offseason; he spent his days shuttling between the team’s Davie headquarters, where he rehabbed, and Miami, where he sparred with boxing coach Matt Baiamonte and lifted weights with personal trainer Manning Sumner.
“It was my main focus for the last nine months,” Albert said. “ ‘How am I going to get better to play football again?’ ”
Added Albert: “I still have fun in the offseason. I probably couldn’t travel as much. I had to concentrate on getting healthy, probably sacrifice my time, I guess. A lot of time went to concentrating on my knee.”
The payoff comes Sunday.
And it will be doubly sweet considering the location. Although born in Upstate New York, Albert went to high school in suburban Washington.
He will have friends and family at the game but isn’t planning a big reunion. He told the Miami Herald on Monday that he probably would not deviate from his Saturday night ritual of quiet — and solitary — mental preparation.
Sunday is “going to be a proud moment for me and the people who had my back — my teammates. A lot of people were there for me when I was down and out,” Albert said.
Back in his hometown, he will have his first chance to pay them back.