Following a defiant seventh-round knockout of previously unbeaten Jose Pedraza (22-1, 12...
VanBuren Ready For New Start
SAN DIEGO— This time last year Chargers offensive tackle Courtney VanBuren was projected as the Bolts’ starting left tackle in a rebuilt offensive line. Then everything changed with one key trade for a veteran left tackle with a Super Bowl ring and one season-ending knee injury.
Instead of building on a promising rookie season in 2003, VanBuren watched the Chargers’ 2004 AFC West championship season unfold from the sidelines and the training room as his opportunity slipped away.
Roman Oben, the veteran acquired from Tampa Bay in a trade, started every game at left tackle. Shane Olivea, the seventh-round draft pick from Ohio State that was one of the surprise stories of the year in the NFL, started every game at right tackle.
As VanBuren, a 6-foot-6, 350-pounder, prepares for Mini Camp in June, the Chargers’ offensive line is no longer the virtual blank canvas it was in 2004 when the third-round draft pick from Arkansas Pine-Bluff was considered a key building block. All five starters up front return from last year.
But despite the drop on the depth chart, VanBuren sounds the same now as he did a year ago when he was recovering from a knee injury that forced him to miss the final two games in 2003.
“I’m ready to go,” VanBuren said. “I’ve been doing everything I need to do in the offseason program, and I’m excited about the season. We’ve got some solid draft picks coming in that will help the team win. I want to contribute. I feel the future for the Chargers is unlimited.”
VanBuren was injured in the final preseason game on Sept. 2 and placed on injured reserve once a torn ACL was discovered and he underwent surgery.
“You definitely become more introspective when you’ve been hurt for a long time,” VanBuren said. “You realize how much you miss football and how much it means to you. I love football. I love the competition, the physicality and the camaraderie of the guys.”
The rehab process was lonely at first, but this is the NFL and VanBuren soon had company. Wide receiver Reche Caldwell was enjoying a promising start to 2004 until a knee injury ended his year.
“We had similar injuries, and we pushed each other,” VanBuren said. “I would see him do something in rehab, and then I wanted to show I could do it too. I got advice from guys like (nose tackle) Jamal Williams and (defensive end) Adrian Dingle, who had come back from an ACL injury. That helped me work through the soreness. I’m just thankful for modern medicine. A few years ago an ACL was considered a career-ending injury. I know I can come back from this.”
Although the Chargers have gone from a roster with numerous holes to fill to a division champion with 22 returning starters, VanBuren reminds you he is still young and he feels he’ll be a better football player in 2005 than he would have been healthy in 2004.
“I definitely feel stronger now than I did a year ago,” VanBuren said. “A year ago I was making inroads and felt I was playing at a better tempo (than his rookie year). I want to get back to where I wanted to be last year and where the Chargers wanted me to be. The only thing I can do is keep working and trying to get better.”
VanBuren said competing for a job on a defending champion will make him a better player than when he would have been as a projected starter on a team with holes to fill.
“I’ve learned you can’t take anything for granted in this league,” he said. “You have to play every play like it will be your last. I’ve never been a lazy person, but now I’m prepared better mentally. I feel like light years have passed since I first got here. I want to thank the Chargers for sticking by me. I know every year there is a new crop of 150-odd guys trying to take your job, and you have to be ready to compete.”