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Pittman's engines revving

He would be the last one to leave the park, long after the kids with the soccer balls and moms with their strollers had packed it in and called it a day.

It was then, in the cover of darkness on an empty field, that Michael Pittman could put on his helmet and shoulder pads, fasten his chin strap and run with the football again.

He felt kind of silly at first, a grown man dressed in full armor pretending to be in the National Football League. But after a while he got the hang of it and there was nobody who could stop him.

Not commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who had imposed the three-game suspension. Not his wife, Melissa, who greeted him each weekend with a list of honey do's. And not the defenses of the Redskins, Seahawks or Raiders, who put the clamps on his teammates.

"I was running at this park by the Cheval area where I live," Pittman said. "I had to wait until everybody left, of course, because I didn't want everybody seeing me running with my shoulder pads and helmet on. I didn't want no one to call the police on me. So that's what I did. It was kind of embarrassing, but I had to do what I had to do."

You can't blame Pittman for feeling that way. Whenever the police have been called, he has ended up taking a ride handcuffed in the back of a cruiser. Twice he has been suspended by the NFL for violating the personal conduct policy: for one game in 2001 after a domestic violence incident involving his wife, and for the first three games of this season for crashing his Hummer into the Mercedes driven by Melissa and carrying his son and babysitter.

"It's officially over now," Pittman said after practice Wednesday, his first in nearly a month. "I served my three-game suspension and I did what I had to do in the past, I did it and it's all over with. I'm just happy to be back, I've been anxious to get back. You know, my wife, when I was home for three weeks, had me doing all the honey do's. I was hanging up blinds and touching up paint, doing some touchups. I'm just glad to be back. It was fun at home for a while, but it's better out here right now. I'm happy to be back with my teammates.

"Last year, mentally, I really was frustrated. I just didn't know what was going to happen. My career, my future, my family _ anything. But now, I know what's going to happen. Everything is over with. I can just really concentrate on football."

Pittman's timing couldn't be better. The Bucs lost starting running back Charlie Garner to a season-ending knee injury Sunday against the Raiders. At 32, Garner's career may be over.

"It's terrible," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "When you saw the extent of the injury, it's terrible."

Gruden planned to use the 6-foot, 218-pound Pittman and Garner in the same backfield, creating matchup problems in the passing game and giving the Bucs more versatility.

"With me and Charlie in the same backfield at the same time, I thought we could be really dangerous for the opposing defenses," Pittman said.

For all his struggles off the field, the 29-year-old Pittman has been a productive player for the Bucs. The past two seasons, he ranked among the top 10 in the NFL in total yards. Last year, Pittman totaled a career-high and team-best 1,348 yards from scrimmage (751 rushing and 597 receiving) while catching a career-high 75 passes.

"We're happy to have him back," Gruden said. "He's got a chance to give us a shot of life. We've just got to be smart and see where he is. He has been inactive for close to a month and you've got to respect that, too.

"It's rustiness. His game shape. Getting up after you're tackled. When two guys throw you to the ground, it's not like he's practiced that the last two or three weeks. "Jesus crimine, it's hot. My pads are heavy.' The timing of things. Picking the hole, feeling the blitz pickup, hitting a guy, being hit. That's why you have practice."

One thing Pittman wants Bucs fans to know: He won't cure all their ills on offense.

"I'm not coming in trying to be the savior. I've got 52 other players that are good on this team. I'm going to try to help and provide what I can bring to this team. I can catch it out of the backfield and I can run."

But in two seasons, Pittman has rushed for more than 100 yards in only three games. His biggest impact likely will be at receiver, giving quarterback Brad Johnson a target he is finally familiar with.

"You're able to move him from wide receiver to the slot, to running back. Sometimes he's a decoy, sometimes he's a playmaker. But obviously, with his catches and what he can do out of the backfield, there are some mismatches with him. It would've been great to see him and Charlie in the backfield at the same time. That would've made a difference. But there's a lot of comfort with Mike."

But it's Pittman who's finally at ease. He is ready to run free again.

"I promise you after every game I watched the team, I had to get up and take a shower," Pittman said. "Really. I was really at home sweating. I just wanted my teammates to do so well, especially because I wasn't out there.

"I'm really going to be anxious, but I've got to calm myself down. I can't hyperventilate. But I'm going to be pumped up, I'm going to be ready to go. Somehow, I've got to stay calm. If I go out there all anxious, I'll be tripping over my feet and dropping the ball. But I'm very confident right now. I know what I've got to do and I'm ready to go."