Stanback has landed on his feet with Patriots

By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / November 21, 2009

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FOXBOROUGH - On the day the Dallas Cowboys made final cuts this summer, Isaiah Stanback prepared himself for an uncomfortable prospect. He could wake up as an NFL wide receiver and by night be looking for his next team. “I was definitely aware,’’ Stanback said.

After his previous three years, Stanback had grown accustomed to adversity. When the Cowboys told him they had released him, Stanback met the decision with the resolve he forged battling injuries, including the one that almost crushed his NFL career before it began.

The next day, Stanback landed with the Patriots. He spent the first half of the season on their practice squad as a quarterback, the position he played in college, only to finally land on the active roster as a wide receiver last Sunday night.

In his first game with the Patriots, Stanback seemingly seized the third wide receiver position. He played 42 offensive plays, compared with five snaps each for Sam Aiken and Julian Edelman, who was still shaking off rust while returning from a broken forearm. Stanback caught both passes Tom Brady threw to him for 17 total yards.

Stanback felt healthy for maybe the first time since the middle of his senior season in college. His career since then had been a procession of injuries, and Stanback owes his roster spot to his ability to overcome them. Stanback’s right foot still gets sore after practice, but for once it is his only ailment.

“It feels good to be feeling good again,’’ Stanback said.

Stanback last had that feeling Oct. 14, 2006. During his senior season as the University of Washington’s quarterback, Stanback had become a contender to win Pacific-10 player of the year. The Huskies were trailing Oregon State late in the fourth quarter, Stanback trying to lead a desperate comeback. He dropped back to pass on third and long, then scrambled.

“Third and 25,’’ Stanback said. “I got 24 yards.’’

Stanback planted his right foot at the end of the run and the top of his foot twisted and touched the turf. Stanback thought he had sprained his ankle.

“I was mad I didn’t get the first down,’’ he said.

His ankle burned. Stanback could not put weight on his foot. A cart carried him off the field and he knew then it was more than an ankle sprain.

“I don’t do the whole pick-me-up thing,’’ Stan back said.

Hoping the doctor would tell him he could return in a few weeks, Stanback learned he had fractured a bone in the Lisfranc joint of his foot and needed surgery. His recovery, at minimum, would be 9-12 months. Some players with this injury, Stanback was told, are never able to play again.

Stanback’s athleticism had made him an intriguing draft prospect. During the spring of his junior season, he ran track and finished fifth in the 100 meters at the Pac-10 championships. The Baltimore Orioles drafted him in the 45th round even though Stanback had not played baseball since he was a high school center fielder.

After his foot injury, though, Stanback had no chance to prove himself, no senior all-star games, no scouting combine. While his contemporaries strutted for scouts, Stanback rehabbed his foot.

“I know too much about [the injury],’’ Stanback said. “It originated from people riding horses. They got their foot caught in the stirrups. I hope I never have to deal with that again.’’

Despite the setback, the Cowboys chose him in the fourth round and made him a wide receiver. He didn’t mind the change, but he felt behind. Terrell Owens, Terry Glenn, and Patrick Crayton gave him advice, but Stanback had not fully recovered from the surgery.

“It was definitely a process,’’ Stanback said. “Not being able to start right off the bat, I didn’t get off to a great start with the injury that I had. You need your feet as a receiver. When you have an injury like that, you forget how you run. You forget the way you do a lot of things, just basic fundamentals. Running in general was hard enough versus learning the position.’’

Stanback could never get healthy with the Cowboys. He was active for 10 games over two years. He dislocated the same shoulder twice. He injured his knee during organized team activities. He never allowed the thought that his career was slipping away to enter his mind.

“I never let myself go to that point,’’ Stanback said. “If I would have done that, it would have been after the foot injury. The doctor told me a good percentage of guys don’t come back from that. If anything was going to put me down, that should have been it.’’

During the winter and spring following his senior season, the Patriots evaluated Stanback as a quarterback. Despite his years as a wide receiver in Dallas, the Patriots still believed he could play QB.

A day after the Cowboys released him, roughly 10 teams contacted Stanback. He chose New England because he believed they could best utilize his versatility.

“You see that all the time, they take defensive linemen or linebackers and put them on offense,’’ he said. “If you can do something good, they’re going to find a way for you to help out.’’

With the Patriots in need of depth at wide receiver, Stanback provides another option while also giving the Patriots an emergency quarterback. He fulfills two requirements while taking up only one spot on the roster.

“He’s a unique player,’’ Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio said. “He’s athletic, he’s big, he’s strong, he’s fast, he has good hands. We’ll go through each week and see how it goes and then make a decision about what we feel his best spot is going to be for us now and then moving forward.’’

For now, Stanback is focused on playing wide receiver and special teams, in kick coverage and as a kick return candidate. His promotion to the active roster gives him security. His health gives him the feeling his career is just beginning again.

“I got a long way to go,’’ Stanback said.

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