Assistant coach DeCamillis' recovery inspires, awes Cowboys

IRVING, Texas -- Joe DeCamillis walks a little faster, screams a little louder. He has made it through five preseason games without taking any painkilling shots.

Best of all, he's sleeping in his own bed again. Well, most of the time.

DeCamillis isn't fully recovered from the broken neck he suffered when the Dallas Cowboys' practice facility collapsed last spring and, in some ways, never will be. But he's making progress and continuing to amaze and inspire people in the organization and throughout the NFL.

"Hopefully, I can coach a little harder and be on top of things a little bit better than I was last year," DeCamillis said. "I wasn't at my best last year, there was no question about it. But I'm getting close to that now. I'm hopefully going to be in position to help the team a little more."

DeCamillis was hired early last year to punch up the Cowboys' special teams. He was on the field for one of the first times, working with rookies during a minicamp, when bad weather forced them to move into a tent-like structure. The storm toppled the building, leaving DeCamillis with four broken vertebrae.

Two titanium rods were implanted to reconstruct DeCamillis' spinal cord and neck. Just 16 days later, he was on the practice field for the Cowboys' first offseason workout, wearing a neck brace and screaming into a bullhorn. He hardly missed a day of work the entire season.

DeCamillis received an injection before every game -- "I've never had a player do that," coach Wade Phillips marveled -- yet it still wasn't enough. The medicine wore off by the fourth quarter after several hours of DeCamillis further pushing his aching body. Plus, there was the logistical problem of him constantly being in harm's way on the sideline.

"I was really worried about him last year and I still am to a certain extent," Phillips said. "Last year, I was, 'Stand back, Joe. You need to get away from the sideline. During plays and things like that, stand behind us.' You just had to remind him of that stuff. He couldn't get banged up at all. ... But he still did his job and did it really well. I can't say enough about that."

Joe D, as he's widely known, received letters from Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, Carolina Panthers coach John Fox and Mike Shanahan, who was out of coaching then but will guide the Washington Redskins against DeCamillis and the Cowboys in the season opener Sunday night. DeCamillis knew those guys through the fraternity of NFL coaches, but he wasn't close with them; that's why their notes meant so much.

DeCamillis also became just the fourth recipient of a Special Courage Award given out by the Ed Block Foundation, which has honored the bravery and toughness of NFL players for 32 years. Phillips went to Baltimore for the award ceremony and was DeCamillis' presenter.

"I knew he felt good about me before that, but when he came to that and said what he did, it was a great experience," DeCamillis said. "I know my family appreciated it as well as I did."

Last week, an attorney for DeCamillis and scouting assistant Rich Behm, a father of three young children who was paralyzed in the accident, announced the settlements of lawsuits related to the collapse. He said DeCamillis will receive about $9.5 million, Behm about $24.5 million.

DeCamillis' rehabilitation continues.

Training camp was a grind for him more than anyone, but he also made a pleasant discovery. He didn't have to sleep on a reclining chair any more.

DeCamillis took it to San Antonio for the two weeks that the Cowboys held training camp there, but left it home for the two weeks of camp in Oxnard, Calif. Since returning a little more than a week ago, he has spent about half his nights on the chair and half in bed.

"My wife hopes it goes away a lot more than I do," DeCamillis said. "She didn't want it to come back in the house, I can promise you."

DeCamillis is hoping to avoid painkilling shots, but he realizes he might need them, especially once the weather turns cold.

DeCamillis still gets worn out by the afternoon, but he lingers longer on the practice field. He also has been more focused while he's out there. And he's remained as salty as any coach you've ever heard.

"Joe D is Joe D," kicker David Buehler said, laughing. "He's a pretty intense guy. His spirits were high last year, but they're even higher now."

Keith Brooking played for DeCamillis in Atlanta and was reunited with him in Dallas last season. He appreciates what the coach has endured as much as anyone.

"Regardless of how long you've been in this league -- young guys, old guys -- to see the sacrifices that guy made, and what it took for him to overcome his injuries, that's inspiring," Brooking said. "That's what football is all about. He's a great example for all of us."

Like anyone who goes through a life-altering event, DeCamillis emerged a changed man.

For the better, he insists.

"I think it is going to make me a better coach in the long run," he said. "I know it's made me a better person. I know it's made me a better husband, and I know it's made me a better father. Because I got perspective on what was really important in my life, which is my family, my wife and, you know, my faith. And I think those things are really what is important in life, and that definitely woke me up to see that.

"It (the accident) may be a blessing in disguise. I wouldn't wish it on anybody else, but I can tell you there was some good that came out of it, too."

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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