ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The past 19-and-a-half months haven't been easy on
In the last week of the 2011 regular season, the guard was wrapping up the second consecutive year in which he started all 16 games. He had been named a first-team All-Pro by the Dallas Morning News, and the Broncos were on the verge of their first playoff berth since the 2005 season.
But a brutal ankle injury suffered in that Week 17 contest meant Kuper wouldn't be on the field with his teammates as they went on to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers and eventually lose to the New England Patriots in the postseason.
After working all of the following offseason to rehab his ankle, a broken forearm in training camp leading up to the 2012 season sidelined him through the club's first four games. When he finally got back on the field, another injury to his ankle sidelined him yet again. In all, he played in seven games and started five in the 2012 regular season, and was able to suit up -- and start -- for the team's playoff game.
Surgery meant Kuper spent another offseason rehabbing his ankle and left him on the Physically Unable to Perform list at the start of training camp. But on Tuesday, Kuper finally returned to the practice field -- in full pads.
"He has been injured the last couple of years and it really isn’t anyone’s fault," Head Coach John Fox said. "Being injured is hard, having surgery is hard, and when you’re an athlete and just coming back to performing your skill, it’s a long road. It takes tough-minded people and he is that guy.”
Though he wasn't able to take part in any full-team drills yet, Kuper said it still provided him a chance to breathe a sigh of relief.
“Yeah, it’s frustrating," he said of the injuries. "A day like today kind of relieves some of that. (I) feel like a football player again. I’m not going to lie and say it was a piece of cake, but no injury is and I don’t think that’s unique to me.”
The eighth-year veteran is well-respected in the locker room -- he earned the club's Ed Block Courage Award for his perserverence last season -- and Kuper said he hopes to continue in a leadership role as he makes his way back to football.
The former team captain might have to translate that leadership into making the calls at the line of scrimmage from the center position, as Fox said the team "will look at" Kuper at that spot.
The North Dakota product said he played three snaps at center his junior year in college, but that's the extent of his experience there. During warmups prior to the start of Tuesday's practice, he snapped the ball a few times to quarterback
“I just kind of started today," he said. "I’ve done a little bit in the past but nothing extensive. All of it’s going to be a process coming back and getting healthy and transitioning trying to be the best at whatever position I can play.”
“That’s going to be an adjustment, snapping, making the line calls -- moving two feet over makes a difference, too," he continued. "Everything just looks a little bit different. For the past seven years I can make every call at right guard. It’s a little bit of an adjustment doing it from center.”
But Kuper's main focus right now is just on getting healthy enough to compete for his spot on the roster.
That's Fox's hope as well, as Head Athletic Trainer Steve Antonopulos continues to monitor Kuper's progress.
“He has been a captain in my tenure here and I know he is well-respected in the locker room," Fox said. "He is the kind of guy we are looking to have on our football team. Unfortunately for us and him, he has been injured and hopefully we can get him back out of that mode.”