GREEN BAY, Wis. - Sean Richardson's doctors told him it would be a five-step process for him to get back on the field after a career-threatening neck injury.
"I'm on Step 4 right now," the Green Bay Packers second-year safety said during a break in the team's offseason organized team activity practices last week. "Here in the next week or so, I'm hoping to be over Step 4 and then (Step) 5 is the doctors seeing the results of the MRI. That's the final step, so fingers crossed, praying and everything will be all right."
The reality is that Richardson may never clear that fifth and final hurdle. The very phrase neck injury conjures up the image of promising careers cut short, with at least three Packers – wide receiver Terrence Murphy, outside linebacker Jeremy Thompson and three-time Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins – watching their football careers come to abrupt and unexpected ends. Murphy suffered a neck injury as a rookie second-round pick in 2005; Thompson, a 2008 fourth-round pick, suffered his injury in practice in December 2009; and Collins, whom coach Mike McCarthy believes was about halfway through a potential Pro Football Hall of Fame career, was injured during the second game of the 2011 season.
Richardson is hoping to avoid a similar fate, and he's pinning his hopes on several factors: That the herniated disc he suffered wasn't as severe as it could have been; that the doctor who performed his surgery, Dr. Robert Watkins, performed a similar procedure on Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who had a phenomenal year in 2012 after missing the entire 2011 season; and that the medical staff has been encouraged by his progress.
Still, there are no guarantees that Richardson, who made the team as an undrafted rookie free agent last year out of Vanderbilt, will ever play again. He spent the first two weeks of OTA practices watching from the sideline, and he seems likely to be in the same spot for this week's mandatory minicamp practices on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Richardson played 16 snaps on defense after veteran Charles Woodson's injury last season and was in position for more playing time before going down.
"It's just a tough call right now," safeties coach Darren Perry said. "(We) like him, and I hope like hell we can have him. But some things are out of our control and we just have to wait and see on him. Obviously, he's a guy that when you look at him, you see a lot of potential. When ‘Wood' went down, I think he was starting to get some opportunities, and I think he showed why he belonged on our football team. But we just have to kind of wait and see. My fingers are crossed for him. I hope we can have him. But you just don't know at this point."
Richardson said he was fortunate his injury was discovered when it was. It occurred during the Packers' Nov. 25 loss to the New York Giants in East Rutherford, N.J., but the initial symptoms he felt actually pointed to a back injury. He even practiced the following week in advance of the Packers' Dec. 2 game against Minnesota before an MRI revealed the ruptured disc in his neck.
"I thought I was having back spasms (or my) back tightened up a little. The neck didn't really bother me at all. It was more my back," Richardson said. "I went to practice, practiced for a few days and it had got a lot better so I was thinking I'd be fine for the next game. That Friday, just as a precaution they wanted to check it out and see what it looked like and that's when I got the bad news.
"A herniated disc in the neck, that's pretty serious, but I never had a doubt that I (didn't want to) hang it up. Never. It's been a journey and I had the heart for it. I'm excited to get back."
Richardson said Watkins was recommended to him by a number of people, and the fact that Manning not only went to Watkins but had such a terrific season last year was reassuring. It also helped that Watkins, upon examination, didn't have to do a two-level fusion as he first thought.
That said, there's a difference between playing quarterback and initiating hard hits like the ones Richardson must at safety.
"I know Peyton Manning wants the best and is looking for the best, so I felt pretty confident that he did the surgery multiple times," Richardson said. "I got a lot of feedback on who should do the surgery and his name came up a lot.
"After the surgery, they said it wasn't nearly as bad as they thought it was and that was a great sign. There wasn't any nerve damage and stuff, so that was a plus. A lot of things they planned on doing in the neck, they didn't have to do. So it was great."
Now, Richardson is hoping to be back on the field for training camp, and if he does get the medical clearance he needs, he'll have an opportunity: With Woodson's Feb. 15 release, the Packers have no real veteran presence at the safety position. Starter Morgan Burnett is entering his fourth season, but Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings, who would be Richardson's competition for the spot opposite Burnett, are young like he is.
"I'm close to 100 percent. We don't have a timetable yet, but we're taking it day-by-day, step-by-step," Richardson said. "The injury doesn't give me any problems. I actually forget that I had the surgery unless somebody reminds me like, ‘How's your neck?' or stuff like that. Other than that I feel fine.
"Being a big competitor like I am, that's all I do and that's what got me here is working hard. I wasn't always the best player on the field but I always worked for it, always competed, and I play with a passion. That's what got me here and that's what's keeping me going and that's what helped me through this surgery and the rehab. I just keep faith and keep pushing. I'll be back out there."
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on "Green & Gold Today" on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.