Former Pro Bowler returns to field for first time in two years

BEREA, Ohio -- Center LeCharles Bentley stood smiling before reporters Tuesday following his first practice with the Cleveland Browns in nearly two years.

Bentley looked just like the former Pro Bowler the Browns signed in 2006, his massive tattooed biceps bulging from his jersey.

But when he spoke, Bentley no longer sounded like the starry-eyed player who couldn't wait to walk on the field for his hometown team.

Bentley, who suffered a major knee injury and a life-threatening infection, now feels he's got something even bigger to accomplish.

"It was really a test," Bentley said Tuesday. "So many times I wanted to quit, but I just couldn't. ... Right now, I'm just trying to show people that if you believe in something, pray hard, work hard, and stay steadfast in your faith, anything can happen."

Bentley passed a physical and running test Monday and was cleared by the Browns to return to the practice field for the first time since injuring his left knee at the start of training camp in 2006.

Bentley has no doubt that he'll be starting in 2008 whether it's with the Browns or another NFL team.

"I am going to end up being a better player behind all this," Bentley said. "I feel much better. I feel much stronger. I feel much more explosive than I've ever been. As far as my playing ability, I'm not worried about that at all."

While acknowledging that it was exciting to see Bentley return from injury, Browns coach Romeo Crennel is waiting to see whether Bentley can contribute this season.

"It'll be uplifting if he can play at the level he used to play at," Crennel said.

Bentley participated in practice Tuesday during the start of the Browns' three-day minicamp, including some drills with the other offensive linemen. But when it came time for contact, Bentley stood to the side, his helmet propped on top of his head. The Browns don't know when he'll be able to take part in contact drills.

"It's been two years," general manager Phil Savage said. "Obviously, he's made a tremendous step to even be out here at all."

Bentley, a two-time Pro Bowl center with New Orleans, signed a six-year, $36 million free-agent contract in March 2006 with the Browns. His dream of playing for his hometown team ended quickly when he tore his left patellar tendon on the first full-contact play of training camp that year. He hasn't played since.

Following surgery to repair the tendon, he developed a staph infection and needed three more operations.

"I went from not expecting to have a leg, not expecting to live," Bentley said. "Dealing with that kind of emotion, you're not even thinking about football. I go from that to, 'You're never going to play again. You'll be lucky to walk again.'"

It remains to be seen whether Bentley can help the Browns, whose improved line was a major factor in the team's high-scoring offense and 10-win season last year.

"He's made a lot of progress," Savage said. "He wants to give it a go."

Tight end Kellen Winslow also reported to minicamp after skipping the team's voluntary organized team activities last month. He underwent offseason knee surgery and wants to redo his contract.

Winslow, who declined to talk to reporters, missed most of his first two seasons in the league with injuries. He has three more years left on a contract that the Browns restructured after he missed a year following a motorcycle accident.

Wide receiver Joe Jurevicius is still rehabbing his knee after offseason surgery and was absent from minicamp as was offensive lineman Ryan Tucker, who is recovering from a hip injury.

Bentley, 28, whose contract with Cleveland has been shortened to one year, said being a Browns player is still special, but the past two years have given him a different perspective.

"I've been a die-hard fan my entire life -- that will never change," Bentley said. "But one thing I've realized over these last two years is there is a business aspect to this. When I got here, it wasn't a business decision to come to Cleveland. It was an emotional decision. ... One thing that I've been shown on several occasions is that this is a business. Business people have to make business decisions. We'll see what happens."

Like Browns fans, Bentley is looking forward to seeing what the Browns can accomplish with the talented players they've brought in over the last two years.

Bentley said it won't be difficult getting used to the new faces because he never really got to settle in two years ago.

"I still feel like I'm just the new guy on the block," he said.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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