Cowboys linebacker Greg Ellis, center, is flanked by fellow Pro Bowl players Terence Newman, left, and Terrell Owens.
Paul Sakuma / AP Enlarge
HONOLULU - A Pro Bowl debut can't be more meaningful to any player than it is for Greg Ellis.
The Dallas linebacker won the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award for 2007 against one of the strongest fields ever.
Considering that last summer, Ellis couldn't be sure he would ever wear a Cowboys jersey again or contribute in a meaningful manner, his selection for tomorrow's All-Star game is even more impressive.
Ellis tore his left Achilles' tendon in November, 2006.
Few injuries are as devastating, and his recovery was slow.
So slow that Ellis didn't suit up for the first three games this season. He estimates he appeared in 50 plays in the first six weeks of the schedule.
Add in that this was just his second season as an outside linebacker after spending eight years as a defensive end - a move he initially opposed - and Ellis' future certainly was in doubt.
"Initially, when it first happened, I knew the kind of injury and the history of it," Ellis said yesterday, noting that many players don't come back nearly as strongly from an Achilles' tendon problem.
"But once the surgery went good and then I got out of the cast and did some weight-bearing, I began to feel positive."
Still, the horror stories were in his mind.
Such as how when Dan Marino had similar surgery late in his career, Marino's doctors and trainers knew he would never be the same player.
"You don't realize how important the Achilles is," Ellis said. "Then you tear it and you realize how important it is."
Cowboys coach Wade Phillips was patient with Ellis during the summer and early in the season, which Ellis appreciates.
By mid-October, Ellis was beginning to become a factor as a pass rusher and even in coverage, something he'd never done until 2006.
And then he became a force.
"I got a sack and realized I can go around the corner again and get there," he said.
"And because of the move to linebacker, I was taking less of a pounding. At linebacker, as opposed to defensive end, you don't have to go up against the pounding with offensive linemen and hit them every play.
Just then, several NFC teammates - yep, offensive linemen - came by and patted Ellis on the shoulder or gave him a playful tap.
"I have seen him out there week in and week out working really hard," said fellow Cowboys linebacker and Pro Bowler DeMarcus Ware.
"To see him come back and contribute even more [after] that injury, it shows the courage that he has."
Ellis calls the comeback player award "a great honor," but then mentions how nobody really wants to be in the running for it.
"If you're hurt, obviously you'd love to be able to come back and win the comeback player of the year," he said.
"The best thing is when the guys you play with see you take a hit or hit someone and they say, 'Yeah, he's safe again.'
"When I won it and then saw all the other people who got votes," Ellis added, meaning Randy Moss, Ben Roethlisberger, Brett Favre, Jamal Lewis, Bobby Engram, Patrick Kerney and five others, "it made it even more special for me.
"I think those other guys know what it takes, how much I busted my butt to get back to this level."
The level he is at is beyond anything Ellis achieved as an end.
And because he missed nearly a year on the field, it's even more remarkable how far he's advanced his game.
"He's sort of a like a DE/LB, he's two players playing in the 4-3 and in the 3-4," Ware said. "He contributes on both. Just to have him out there is a really big deal."
Ellis couldn't have said it better himself.