KANSAS CITY — Jamaal Charles, Eric Berry and Tony Moeaki have been waiting for this moment far too long.
The trio of Kansas City Chiefs trio tore the ACLs in their left knees in a three-week stretch that started with last year's preseason finale. So rather than practice and play with their teammates, they were forced into the training room and slowly worked their way back to health.
Baby steps at first, and then repetition after repetition all season long.
It was the kind of grueling, monotonous work that can test even the hardiest football players' mental well-being, especially if there's no tangible finish line. But whenever one of the injured Chiefs got down on themselves, someone else picked them back up and reminded them that the Atlanta Falcons are coming to Arrowhead Stadium for the season opener.
The finish line they kept in sight awaits Sunday.
"It's going to feel great, exciting, to be back on the field again, especially with my teammates, the passion out there," said Charles, who hurt his knee in week two last season. "I feel good, I feel great right now. I just can't wait until the opportunity comes."
Charles was the last of the three players to get hurt after Moeaki went down against Green Bay in a preseason game and Berry was hurt in the opener against Buffalo.
But their surgeries were scheduled close enough together that they were roughly on the same timeline for recovery. So when one of them was able to start doing more agility work or was able to put a few more pounds on a leg press, the other two would try it, too.
So it went all through the offseason, the three of them mostly held out of drills with an eye on training camp. They started to get on the field more in St. Joseph, Mo., and then took their customary spots in the lineup when the Chiefs played their preseason opener against Arizona.
"Everything we've asked them to do, they've done," Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel said.
Still, the Chiefs were careful with the way they used the three of them during the four-game preseason schedule. Charles may have been the most limited, carrying only 15 times for 73 yards, and Moeaki had only two catches for 32 yards — though he also had several drops.
Berry, though, looked every bit the hard-hitting safety who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, and his return could prove most important with the Falcons coming to town.
Matt Ryan set a franchise record with 4,177 yards passing last season, and Roddy White and Julio Jones gave him a pair of play-making wide receivers. Former Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez remains one of the best pass-catchers off the line of scrimmage in the league, and running back Michael Turner is a threat to break a big play every time he touches the ball.
There's a very real possibility that the game could turn into a shootout, and in that case, the Chiefs won't hesitate to call on Charles and Moeaki to make some plays.
Charles was coming off a breakout 2010 season in which he ran for 1,467 yards and averaged well over six per carry when he went down against the Lions. He's confident that the acceleration and top-end speed that made him so dangerous two years ago hasn't dulled after the knee injury.
"I'm worrying about the Falcons. I'm not worrying about my knee," Charles said. "I feel great. The preseason games, getting a feel, moving around, making the moves I used to make out there, I feel good. Every week is getting better and better."
Crennel said he's willing to use Charles as much as it takes, but the offseason acquisition of Peyton Hillis signaled that his number won't be called 30 times a game. Hillis is a rugged, durable running back that should complement Charles, and perhaps more importantly, take enough carries to keep the most dynamic player on the Kansas City offense healthy all season.
"We're just trying to make each other better. We've been doing that this whole training camp, making each other better," Charles said. "At the end of the day, it's about winning. It's not about who gets the most yards. It's just about winning."
While fans in Kansas City will probably be holding their collective breath the first time Charles touches the ball — or the first time Moeaki and Berry take a hit to their surgically rebuilt knees — Falcons coach Mike Smith is certain that they'll be just as good as ever.
In fact, he believes Charles is one of the NFL's fastest running backs — even after the injury.
"They're going to give him his touches," Smith said. "There are so many guys on that offensive side that can cause you problems, but I anticipate seeing him a lot on Sunday."
That'd be just fine with Charles. It's what he's been working toward for months.