TAMPA — Monday was a day Louis Murphy had waited for, going back nearly a year.
The former Lakewood High and University of Florida receiver had his first practice with the Bucs since tearing his ACL last season and undergoing major knee surgery.
"I couldn't sleep during the bye week," said Murphy, 29, who practiced on the first day he was eligible after spending the required first six weeks of the season on the physically unable to perform list. "I was itching for Monday to come, didn't get too much sleep last night. Just glad to be back, glad to be with my teammates, back out there in the huddle."
Sunday's game at San Francisco will be two days short of a year since Murphy injured his knee in the Bucs' loss at Washington last season. Successful rehab from a torn ACL is common, but still a grueling, difficult process that is as trying mentally as it is physically to return healthy.
"It's a long, long, hard road back," coach Dirk Koetter said. "Those guys spend hours and hours in the training room and in the weight room, and the trainers take them out in the field and do field drills. I've seen Murph out there so many times. The players feel like they're letting their teammates down, letting the fans down, their families down. They go through ups and downs emotionally. … It's just a long tough road. If you pretty much ask any player that's ever been injured for a long period of time, they feel like they've been shipped out to some outer planet and aren't really a part of the team anymore."
Murphy took time Monday to thank all the members of the training staff who have helped him in his recovery — head athletic trainer Bobby Slater, assistant athletic trainers Scott "Dutchy" DeGraff, Stanley Delva and John Ames — to not only get his knee healthy but to slowly help him build confidence in his rebuilt joint.
"It felt great," he said. "No real issues. We attacked the rehab really hard. There were days where I felt like not pushing, and they pushed me to the limit. … There's a mental hurdle, and I think that was today. Getting in there, getting banged around, making some blocks, going against the defense. It felt great, like riding a bike."
Some players in a lengthy rehab won't be around the team at practice, but Murphy has been a constant presence around the receivers. This helped him feel like a part of the team, lending veteran wisdom to a mostly young group of receivers, but it also gave him months of mental reps at each practice.
"Every time I was out at practice, I was watching where I would be at," Murphy said. "I would be X one day, Z one day, F one day. I'm going to take all these reps mentally, so I don't lose that."
When Murphy signed with the Bucs in 2014, it was his fourth team in four seasons, having totaled just six catches in one year with the Giants in 2013. He was among Tampa Bay's final cuts, getting back on roster in the third week of the season, and produced well, finishing with 31 catches for 380 yards and two touchdowns.
He had just 10 catches for 198 catches in six games before his injury last season, and he admitted that the difficulty of a long rehab made him question if it wasn't easier to just call it quits and retire.
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about retiring," Murphy said. "It's really tough. I commend anyone who has ever come off an ACL. It tested me mentally. There were a couple of days where me and Dutchy were going back and forth and he was telling me to push through. I'm just glad to be back."
Murphy's first practice opened a 21-day window in which he can be added to the active roster — that could be as soon as Sunday, or another week or two depending on how his knee responds to the physical demands of being tested in practice.
Murphy reached out to other NFL players who have come back from ACL surgery — Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis, Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson, Green Bay receiver Jordy Nelson — and said he found encouragement in their persistence and success in making it through the same adversity he was facing.
"They all said, 'It's going to be tough, but you know you can do it,' " he said.
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.