Eben Britton feels good again. Really good.
When he walks, and when he does other everyday things, he feels increasingly normal each day. And when the Jaguars' veteran offensive lineman runs . . .
Well, that's a story in itself.
He ran Tuesday for the first time in a long time.
"It felt great," he said.
Britton, the Jaguars' second-round selection in the 2009 NFL Draft, has missed much of the last two seasons, and missed nearly all of last season with a back injury. But on Tuesday, he said he feels better by the week and the day. And most important for Britton:
He is confident he will return as healthy and effective – or better – than before.
"It's about, 'How much do you love doing it?''' Britton said Tuesday. "I believe that I'll be even better after this. To me, that's what it's all about. I'm tremendously better today than I was a month ago.
"To me, it's all positive – keep getting better and better. That's all I can do right now."
Britton has waited a long time to say that. And yes, he said, there were times during the last few months he thought about not trying to return, and wondered if it was worth it.
Britton, who played collegiately at the University of Arizona and started 15 games at right tackle for the Jaguars as a rookie, said his issues actually started in his second season.
He said his back first began to bother him early that season, and midway through, he sustained a torn labrum and missed the final nine games. During the ensuing inactivity, the back pain returned, worsening during the first two weeks of 2011 Training Camp.
"They finally said, 'Let's take a look at this, because clearly you're not yourself from your rookie year,''' he said.
An MRI revealed a herniated disc. Britton underwent surgery and "instantly felt better." The next eight or nine weeks, he said, he felt as good as he ever had in his career, "and really got back to the level of play I want to be at and need to be at."
He experienced soreness in his back following a Week 5 loss to Cincinnati, but didn't think it was anything beyond normal post-game soreness. He thought the same as the pain lingered throughout the week, but on October 16 he woke in a Pittsburgh hotel the morning of a game against the Steelers "effectively a cripple."
"I could barely get out of bed," Britton said. "It was an unbelievable feat to walk to the bathroom – completely excruciating pain. In my mind, I'm like, 'I'll get it warmed up and be able to play.' It didn't warm up."
Britton said doctors initially thought the back was overworked, and prescribed medication to reduce inflammation. The pain lingered, and on the Tuesday following the Jaguars' Monday Night victory over Baltimore on October 24 was so severe another MRI and spinal tap was ordered.
For a week, the doctor saw no evidence of infection. Britton remained home on painkillers, not knowing the cause of his pain. Not until the eighth day, when the cultures were being thrown out, did they turn positive and reveal an infection.
"I was like, 'All right, let's start going,''' Britton said. "The infectious disease doctor said on this antibiotic treatment, I should feel better week to week. Sure enough, I did. It was really slow, but one week, I realized I could bend over a sink without bracing my hands."
That progress has continued, and Britton said while it is ongoing he has no doubt he will return to his pre-injury condition. Doctors tell him the discs are fine; his back, structurally sound. The infection, he said, was a rare instance with no medical reason it should return.
Britton also said the way he felt in August and September convinces him better, healthier days are ahead.
"It was a big relief to get that over with, to know what was wrong and to have dealt with it," Britton said. "You can't look back. I plan to go on and have a long career. I'm doing to do everything in my power to make that happen. At this point, you have to take it one day at a time.
"It really has taught me a lot about taking better care of my body. There are certain things I have to do every day to feel good."
Britton said his plan for the off-season is to continue rehabilitating. He currently is lifting and doing core strengthening, cardiovascular and flexibility, and said his work now is less in the training room rehabilitating and more conditioning for next season.
"That's a great feeling," he said, adding that he hopes to participate in the team's off-season conditioning program and organized team activities, and that he absolutely expects to participate in training camp.
"I'll be full-speed ahead, 100 percent," he said. "I don't feel injured. I have no pain anymore. At this point, it's a matter of getting my body back to even. I'm close. I'm getting there. It's getting better every day."
One question Britton said remains unanswered is where he will play. After starting at right tackle 22 games from 2009-2010, he started at both guard and right tackle early last season. He said while the team has briefly discussed his position next season he hasn't spent much time on the matter.
"I don't care," Britton said. "Some people look at it and go, 'Well, he's not talented enough to play tackle in the NFL.' I heard that coming out of college. If you listen to everything people say . . . to me, I don't care. If I'm going to be a right tackle, I'll work my butt off and be a right tackle. If they feel like I can be a better use at guard, then I'll play guard.
"I'm going to play as hard as I can wherever I can. I'm going to make it impossible for them to not let me play, wherever it is."
Britton said as he sees it, things can't get much worse than the last two years. He said he entered camp with a positive outlook as if the worst was behind him last season, and that he'll have the same approach – "even more so," he said – this season.
"I love playing football," he said. "Everybody is quick to count you out, and everybody is quick to say, 'He's done.' What kind of a mentality is that to have? For me, there's no way I could continue doing anything if I had that mentality. In life, you get your butt kicked all the time. That's just a fact.
"Physically, emotionally, psychologically, you get your butt kicked in life. What are you going to do? Fall over and quit? Say I'm done? You can't do that. What's the point of living if you do that?
"For me, I just want to leap over that hurdle and keep going."