IRVING, Texas --Cowboys linebacker Greg Ellis is no longer worried about losing his job to a rookie or about wanting a new contract. His new concern is whether he may be forced to retire because of an injury.
Ellis tore his left Achilles' tendon last November and went through an aggressive rehabilitation to trim a few months off the usual 12-month recovery so he could be back for the start of training camp. Thinking he was ready, he went out for the first workout, but lasted only a few minutes.
The pain forced him to stop. Nearly three weeks later, a spot above his heel and below the surgically repaired tear is still hurting him badly.
"It's a pain you can't deal with," he said. "It never goes away - even when I wake up in the morning, walking around, the whole deal."
An MRI shows no problems, so the team's medical staff isn't too alarmed by this first setback in what had been a flawless recovery. They remain confident Ellis will return. Ellis wishes he could share their optimism.
"It's just frustrating," he said. "What the heck is going on? Why won't it go away? I just keep saying maybe there's something to the time period."
Ellis was hurt Nov. 12, meaning Sunday was the nine-month mark. Waiting three more months would be nice, but the season starts in four weeks, at home against the New York Giants on Sunday, Sept. 9.
No current player has been with the Cowboys longer than Ellis, who hopes to be heading into his 10th season. He's led the team in sacks six times and has been the captain of the defense the past two years.
He made headlines last season when coach Bill Parcells moved him from defensive end to outside linebacker so he'd be a better fit in the team's 3-4 scheme. Ellis was so afraid of failing that he asked to be traded or released, or to have more security written into his contract. He wound up being tied for the lead in sacks when he was hurt.
In April, the Cowboys spent their top pick on Anthony Spencer, a college end being converted to outside linebacker. Seeing Dallas invest in his replacement, Ellis squawked again. He continued grumbling even after his training camp setback. His slow return has prompted accusations that he's faking it.
"This is not about me trying to get more money," he said. "This might be it for me. Hopefully it's not, but that's the reality of the situation."
The question may become how long Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and coach Wade Phillips are willing to wait for him.
What if he needs that full year? That would mean Dallas going at least seven games with essentially a 52-man roster.
Ellis could go on injured reserve, but that would wipe out his entire season. He can't go on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list because he's already participated in a practice, even if it was only the initial few minutes of the very first one.
"That's what it always comes down to, the business side of it," Ellis said. "What are Jerry and Wade going to do? I don't know. They haven't talked to me about it."
Phillips sees no reason to have that chat.
"Our guys say he's day to day," the coach said. "I am going with that."
While the team has been steady with its prognosis, Ellis keeps picking up negative vibes elsewhere.
For instance, at the preseason opener last Thursday, broadcaster Pat Summerall told him, "You know, Greg, a lot of guys don't make it back from this." Ellis also got a call last week from his wife, who was in North Carolina when longtime Panthers safety Mike Minter held a tearful news conference announcing his retirement.
"She was like, 'If this is it, I don't want you to be crying and stuff. I want you to be all right,"' Ellis said. "I told her, 'I'll be all right. I can't tell you I won't shed a tear or two."'
Ellis admits the thought has entered his mind. With his 32nd birthday on Tuesday and only one good leg, he can't help but wonder if he's already played the last game of his career.
"They say some people don't make it back, some make it back and have no problems and some make it back and they're not quite the same guy," he said. "Which category am I going to fall in?"