IRVING, Texas - In microfracture knee surgery, the doctor essentially creates a break himself, using a drill to make tiny holes in the underlying bone, hoping to spur the growth of new cartilage.
It's a fairly newish technique, and a rather serious one. But when arthroscopic surgery reveals there is no cartilage at all, bone rubbing against bone, it's the next step for an orthopedic surgeon. It takes three months after surgery before any weight can be put on the knee, and there's really no way to predict exactly how long a complete recovery will take. It's a big deal, particularly if your livelihood depends on the outcome.
Junior Siavii had his microfracture done after training camp in 2006 season, his third as a pro and his last with the Kansas City Chiefs, who released him Sept. 2 of that year. Pain from a high right ankle sprain crept northward, and morphed into trouble with his knee, the complete deterioration of the cartilage. It takes roughly three months for those tiny holes to fill, athletic trainers say, and by that time physical decline sets in. Different people take different periods of time to heal.
It took Siavii a little longer than others, causing him to miss two seasons in what should have been his prime.
"After rehab it wasn't the same," Siavii said. "I wasn't the same athlete I was before surgery. I thought I was going to come out of it quicker than I did. It took a while."
Siavii finally signed with the Cowboys as a street free agent in 2008. Though he entered camp with little chance to make the team behind nose tackles Jay Ratliff and Tank Johnson, it was an invitation for him to at least give it a shot, and the first good news on the professional front in nearly three years for Siavii, who went to high school in Pago Pago, American Samoa, then played college ball at Oregon before being picked No. 36 overall by the Chiefs in 2004.
It is that draft status Siavii has been trying to live up to ever since. Upon the retirement of coach Dick Vermeil, who drafted Siavii, Kansas City handed the job to Herm Edwards, who had no connection to the 6-5, 318-pounder. Next came the knee injury, and then the label of "draft bust," which Siavii isn't afraid to utter himself.
Bust or not, someone somewhere along the way thought Siavii could play. The Cowboys scouting department saw enough of it once upon a time to give him a shot years later. Even after what Siavii admits was a tough camp for him last summer, the Cowboys were tempted. Roster numbers and their financial obligation to Johnson forced the team to part ways with him, however.
"We really thought about keeping him," Wade Phillips said. "I was wrong, but I felt like somebody would pick him up, cause he played so well last year in training camp. We were glad to get him back."
In January the Cowboys signed Siavii to another futures contract. With Johnson moving on to Cincinnati, he now has an even better chance to make the team despite being a year older (Siavii's 30 now), and yet another year removed from his last football game of consequence. Throughout OTAs, mini-camp and training camp Siavii has worked as the first backup to Ratliff.
And to think, he almost retired after being cut last year.
"I took it like a bullet in the heart," Siavii said. "I told myself that if I came in and didn't get the job I'd retire. Last year was going to be my last tryout. But I came in and did my thing, and I don't think I got beat out. That was the whole thing - if the guys in front of me let me know I didn't belong, that was going to set me toward retirement.
"But the only thing that killed me was me. I tried to use only my ability that I already had and tried to get through it, but there's more to it than that. So this year I said 'OK, let's make another run.'"
This training camp Siavii attempted to set his instincts and physical gifts aside, instead taking full advantage of line coach Todd Grantham and the experience of the players around him, his comfort with them among the main reasons he decided to return to the Cowboys, spurning offers from three other teams.
After practice at the Alamodome it was normal to see Siavii and his fellow linemen remain on the field to go over techniques and schemes with one another. He says Ratliff and Grantham together have made him a better player.
"Junior's going to be a great player for us," Ratliff said. "He's a strong, strong guy. A heck of a lot stronger than I am. He's got a big frame and I think he's going to do some good things there. As long as he's here he's got my support; I'm definitely here for him."
Grantham says Siavii or whoever makes the team as the backup nose tackle can expect to be on the field just as much as Johnson was last year, probably 20-25 snaps a game to keep Ratliff fresh for the fourth quarter and pass rushing situations. Siavii is well suited to play the run because of his size and strength, something that Ratliff has to overcome since a nose tackle's job often involves holding up a double team so linebackers can get to the football.
Usually Ratliff does it with quickness. Siavii's got a little of that, too. Phillips was impressed by the way he got downfield to make a tackle on a screen pass in the preseason opener against the Raiders. While the past knee problems would suggest Siavii is somewhat stationary, that's not the case. The time out of football has had its obvious downside, but three years away from the game has avoided Siavii 48 Sundays' worth of cut blocks.
"He's athletic, he can run," Grantham said. "Plus he's still a relatively young guy. He hasn't played, which is good in one way, the wear and tear, but you also don't get the recognition and the pace of the game. It'll be real important during this training camp and the preseason games that he gets his timing down."
Siavii says he's starting to pick up the speed of the game. At the moment he seems to have a clear edge at winning a job over former Giants lineman Jonas Seawright, who was also out of football last year. But Siavii must impress coaches and scouts enough over these next few weeks to keep the Cowboys from bringing in someone else at the position, perhaps a player let go by another team on final cuts.
A few question marks went up when the Cowboys didn't address the middle of their 3-4 in the draft, but they said all along they liked the talent they already had, namely Siavii. Do they still like him enough to not bring in someone who has played recently? Or is this Siavii's year to get back on the field, at long last?
"Hopefully so," he said. "But at the same time I'm still fighting and I can't have that in my head. I'm the guy that's still trying to get a job. I'm not going to say that I'm sitting here comfortable about it, so I'm going to keep fighting."
The opinions of the coaching staff and the decisions reached by the front office when the Cowboys trim their roster to 53 on Sept. 5 are out of Siavii's control. His recent past has taught him there isn't much he can control, anyway. He said when he came into the league he thought he was Superman, that he could never be hurt. But he was hurt, and he did miss three years. And he was called a bust.
This is Siavii's shot at redemption. He says it's the last one he'll take.
"Tomorrow's another day to make up for all the other stuff," Siavii said. "If I don't make the team I'll walk away with my head up. I've done everything I can do. If they cut me and I have to wait until next year again, no, I'm not doing it. This is it. The final draw, the final bullet.