ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Midway through the first quarter of the Broncos' Week 17 matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs last season, Chris Kuper lined up for his fifth play of the day.
The right guard knew his job -- he was on the back side of a running play designed for Willis McGahee.
But during the 6-yard run, Kuper ended up on the ground.
"I just kind of got pinned in between the defender and got rolled up on," he recalled. "I got hurt, but I didn't think it was as bad as it was."
When McGahee looked at Kuper after the play, he immediately put both hands on his head and headed toward the sideline as teammates called for the trainers to bring out a cart.
Kuper's ankle was, well, almost backwards.
"Running on the field, you could tell it was serious," Head Athletic Trainer Steve Antonopulos said. "Obviously it was dislocated, so it didn't look normal when you got there."
Sitting on the field, Kuper kept a straight face as the trainers set the injury -- "That was probably when it hurt the most," he said.
The medical staff then strapped an air cast onto his leg and helped the lineman onto the cart. His teammates patted him on the shoulder pads and gave him words of encouragement as he headed off the field to an ovation from the Sports Authority Field at Mile High crowd.
It was the first major injury of Kuper's career, and ever since that Jan. 1 game, he's been working hard to recover from it.
The process started a little more than a week after the injury -- Kuper had to wait for the swelling to go down -- when he underwent surgery on the injury on Tuesday, Jan. 10.
The hardest part, he said, was watching his teammates in the playoffs without him.
"That Pittsburgh game was exciting, neck and neck, one of those games you want to be involved in," he said. "The Patriots game for a different reason. I felt like I should've been there, I wanted to be there just because stuff went so badly."
His teammates missed him as well.
Just before kickoff of the Broncos' Wild Card win against the Steelers, defensive end Elvis Dumervil brought the offensive and defensive linemen together.
"We're missing somebody, his name's Chris Kuper -- let's do it for Kuper," Dumervil shouted, breaking down the huddle with a "Kuper on three."
"It was huge, man," Dumervil said of Kuper's injury. "He's one of your key guys and leaders -- that hurt. You know if he was out there, he'd give it all he's got. And so I just kind of brought that up and let the guys know, 'Hey, this can be taken away from you any day,' and I think a lot of guys were inspired by that. We went out there and played for 'Kup.'"
Kuper didn't watch the playoff games like a typical fan, instead keeping his eyes on Russ Hochstein, who replaced him at right guard, trying to figure out each play call.
But there was one exception -- when Demaryius Thomas caught the game-winning, 80-yard touchdown in the first play of overtime against the Steelers, Kuper became a fan.
"Everybody in my house was jumping around," he smiled. "It was great to see that."
When Kuper caught wind of Dumervil's speech prior to the win, he said it was something he really appreciated.
"It makes you feel good that you're a big part of the team," he said. "Guys make you feel like it, saying something like that. It's definitely humbling for the guys to be in that situation and have that thought."
When the Broncos' playoff run came to an end, and all of Kuper's efforts went into his rehab.
For a few months, he wasn't allowed to put any weight on his leg.
"There wasn't a lot I could do," he recalled.
He underwent a second procedure, then after another month really began rehabbing. Three or four weeks ago, he started walking in a shoe and working more and more with Antonopulos.
"It's been getting more rigorous," he said.
Much like Dumervil when he was recovering from a pectoral injury, Kuper said he has spent a large chunk of his rehab working on muscles surrounding his injury to help regain strength.
"The leg is such a big part of what I do," he said. "So there's a lot of little muscles and a lot of big muscles that need to be rehabilitated. I didn't have any weight, any pressure on it for three months. So it's getting hips back, calves, getting that flexion back in the ankles and groin, stuff that just kind of shuts down from not using it."
Originally told his recovery timetable ranged from four to six months, Kuper said that is "probably going to be right on par."
"He's been here, he's done everything we've asked, he's worked very hard, he's very diligent and he's working and getting better every day," Antonopulos said.
On a conference call with season ticket holders, Executive Vice President of Football Operations John Elway said he hopes Kuper will be ready to go once training camp starts at the end of July -- and he could be recovered as early as the middle of June.
As for Kuper, he's anxious for camp to arrive -- not only because he can rejoin his teammates on the field, but because it will mean he can put the injury behind him.
"Just kind of sitting on the couch for three months, a lot of stuff goes through your mind," he said. "You start to analyze things on the football side, the life side. I think it definitely gives you something to strive for, to get back to where you were. It's also given me time to focus on things that I probably lack when I'm full strength, whether it's upper body strength or at home with my family. I got to spend some good time with my daughter and my wife, and now we just had a (son) on (May 5), so stuff's pretty hectic right now."
The new dad said he's gotten calls from friends throughout the NFL wishing him well and explaining a little of the rehab process coming back from a major injury.
Dumervil, who battled back from a major injury to make the Pro Bowl in 2011, said he'll give his teammate advice when he needs it, especially when training camp hits and he might still have the injury in the back of his mind.
"He's been busting his butt working hard to get back," Dumervil said. "That's the kind of guy he is. He came in with a chip on his shoulder from when I've known him as a rookie. He has that fire in him and that is the kind of guy I will always go to war with."
The guard's presence during the club's offseason conditioning program has been a welcome sight.
"Just having him walking around, the character – he has that smile, man," Dumervil said. "He has that sense of humor, so just having 'Kup' in the locker room makes everybody feel good."
As for Kuper, he called the injury "unfortunate," but "part of the gig."
And four-and-a-half months after the fact, his spirits are high.
"I'm feeling better -- better than I was three weeks ago," he said. "Every week is better, I think.
"I'm just ready to play football again."