TAMPA — The pain came suddenly and emphatically, and all Clifton Smith could do was wish it away.
That didn't work. For a long time, neither did anything else.
On Wednesday, the Bucs kick and punt returner revealed the details behind his off-and-on absence from practice, saying it stems from nearly two months of incessant pain and efforts by doctors to treat it.
Finally, after numerous doctor visits and dose after dose of medication, the Bucs seem to have gotten a handle on Smith's condition.
Though there was no final diagnosis, Smith's symptoms resembled gout.
According to webmd.com, gout is an arthritic condition causing pain, inflammation and stiffness in a joint — in this case, Smith's right knee. Smith described the pain as severe and said it extended to his back and elsewhere, at times making it difficult to walk.
The condition has only hindered Smith's chances of making the roster. He hasn't played in a game since Dec. 6, when he sustained his second concussion of the season. Then there is the emergence of players such as Micheal Spurlock, another accomplished return man who is also opening eyes as a receiver.
But, at least Wednesday, Smith had a reason for optimism.
"This is the best I've felt in a long time," he said.
Smith said doctors tried different treatments to no avail. He visited two specialists before an appropriate treatment was recently found. When a diagnosis was finally established, Smith had only one question: What is gout?
"I pulled my phone out and Googled it right there," he said. "I didn't know what it was."
The process has been frustratingly long for Smith. He said he first experienced pain during the mandatory minicamp in late June and it quickly became impossible to ignore.
"I was just trying to fight it off," he said.
That proved futile.
"I felt bad for a good month and a half," he said. "But I thought it just came with the territory of playing football; being sore and everything. But after a while, I just knew something wasn't right.
"It was frustrating because you wake up in the morning and it's hard to walk. It's hard to walk upstairs. Your back hurts. Your whole body hurts."
Smith said he wasn't interested in going on the physically unable to perform list, knowing not fighting through the pain would put his roster spot in even more jeopardy.
Smith, 25, ranked seventh in the NFL in kickoff return average in 2009 at 29.1 yards. But the Bucs also have Spurlock, who is responsible for the franchise's first kickoff return for a touchdown, and Sammie Stroughter, who last season averaged 29.5 yards (though on 20 fewer returns than Smith).
Smith went to the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2008, the first Bucs kick returner to do so. But he feels no entitlement. It's a product of taking the long route, going undrafted and working his way up the practice squad.
"I feel the same way I've always felt," he said. "I have to come out here and keep fighting. In this game, you never have it made in the sun."
Coach Raheem Morris didn't indicate where Smith stands in the team's plans. But he was sensitive to his plight and has watched Smith handle it with professionalism.
"He had to have been frustrated because the guy loves playing football," Morris said. "You see his energy and how well he plays when he goes out there. And you know how exciting it is when he touches the football because of everything he's able to do.
"But I haven't seen a change in his attitude around the building. He's been the same ol' Clif."
Now that his condition seems to be under control, Smith is looking to make up for lost time. He intends to play in Saturday's preseason game against the Jaguars.
"I'm just glad they got it figured out just in the nick of time," he said. "We're taking care of the problem. I'll be ready to go on Saturday."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.