GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Justin Harrell laughed almost embarrassingly for a second Friday as the Green Bay Packers defensive tackle thought back to the last time he enjoyed an injury-free football season.
"Probably high school, to be honest with you," Harrell said.
That would have been seven years ago, when he earned Tennessee's distinguished Mr. Football honor during his senior year at Westview High School in Martin, Tenn.
Since then, including five years of college football at Tennessee and two years in the pros, Harrell has been troubled by a string of injuries.
The latest of many setbacks for Harrell after the Packers selected him in the first round of the 2007 draft is a painful hip that stems from two back surgeries he had earlier this year.
"It's been one thing after the other since I've been here," Harrell said.
A lengthy recovery from surgery he underwent for a ruptured biceps tendon during his senior season at Tennessee in 2006 set off a chain reaction of lengthy stints in the Packers training room. Harrell has missed more games (16) than he has played (15) in his brief NFL career, which has prompted many to label him as damaged goods and criticize Green Bay's judgment for picking him 16th overall in last year's draft.
Since the Packers haven't seen the equivalent of a full season out of Harrell, they don't really know what kind of player they have with him.
"Justin Harrell is going through a tough spot right now with some medical issues," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "That's really been the toughest obstacle for him to overcome. He's still a young player. He still fits into the scheme and is fully capable of doing all of the things we expect from him. But, he's going through a tough medical spot right now."
Harrell acknowledged the sore hip has been giving him fits since he suffered a herniated disk in his lower back while lifting weights at the start of the Packers' off-season training program in March this year.
The back injury required surgery in April and kept Harrell off the field for the second straight year in minicamp, organized team activities and training camp.
A complication from the original procedure led to a second surgery on the back in August and further delayed Harrell's return to football action.
He started this season on the physically unable to perform list and missed the first seven games. "Ever since the first surgery, I've never been 100 percent really recovered from it," Harrell admitted.
The Packers' medical staff put Harrell on an aggressive treatment plan this week and held him out of practice until Friday. He's questionable to play Sunday at Jacksonville.
Given Harrell's injury-plagued track record and that he continues to be bothered by residual effects from the back surgeries, the Packers could decide to shut him down for the season.
"We really hadn't discussed it," Harrell said. "We're really just trying to see today, with all of the treatments and stuff I got over the week, how it kind of responded."
Harrell is hopeful another surgery won't be needed after the season is over.
"(What would be) three back surgeries in a span of a couple months isn't good, so I'm not trying to look down that road," Harrell said. "I think one of the biggest things would just be time, just let it rest and heal up."
The Packers believe Harrell, when healthy, can be the talented and productive player in whom they invested that first-round draft pick.
"I'd say he's a young, developing player," McCarthy said. "He has a lot of football in front of him. He's had some unfortunate setbacks."
For all of the criticism Harrell has taken from fans for his inability to stay healthy to which he responded by saying, "Everybody's entitled to their opinion, and by my performance, I guess they have a reason to say that" he is determined to prove the naysayers wrong.
"Everything I've been through, a guy having two back surgeries and still come back and play in a season, that really doesn't happen a whole lot," Harrell said. "I'm trying."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press