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CARSON PALMER WILL NEVER FORGET THAT LONG ride home, his iced-up knee not so much in pain but numb, like the rest of him. He was lying on his side, sprawled across the backseat of his Chevy Tahoe, staring out an open window as his wife, Shaelyn, pulled away from the downtown stadium and up Third Street. The stadium lights were sparkling (exploding is the way he remembers them) as the crowd noise rose and fell, and he could see vendors in the parking lots still hawking jerseys with his number 9 on them. The sensations were as immediate as the twin pops he felt in his left knee upon releasing his first and only pass of the day, a glorious 66-yard completion that momentarily filled the south Ohio sky with unlimited promise. � It was all so sudden, so surreal: a quarterback zooming away from his destiny, as if he were Warren Beatty's Joe Pendleton in Heaven Can Wait. Having just turned 26 and been rewarded with a whopper of a birthday present--a nine-year, $118 million contract from an organization once stingier than Wal-Mart--Palmer now had to confront his football mortality on the very day he'd intended to showcase his invincibility. What he felt was neither anger (that would come later) nor self-pity. It was more like a combination of displacement and, though it made no rational sense, dishonor.
Palmer was thinking of his teammates still out there battling the Pittsburgh Steelers. Less than two hours earlier he had been the envied leader of the resurgent Cincinnati Bengals, whose first playoff game in 15 years had Paul Brown Stadium shaking. Now he was just another backseat driver on the interstate, heading home to suburban Hamilton County, listening to the Cincinnati radio announcers talking about his injury, about the grand opportunity wiped out in an instant for him and the Bengals. "We had it all laid out in front of us," Palmer says. "The Super Bowl could have been ours. I felt like I had deserted them."
By the time Palmer hobbled through his front door, the Bengals, who had surged to a 17-7 lead behind backup Jon Kitna, were being pummeled. As he sat on the living room couch watching the final minutes of Pittsburgh's 31-17 victory, Palmer felt he was already wasting time. Earlier, lying on a table in the training room, he'd cried as he understood the magnitude of his injury. But now, as Cincinnati's sports fans mourned their loss, Palmer was already thinking about his comeback.
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis and his wife, Peggy, drove straight from the stadium to Palmer's house after the game. They chatted at the front door with Kitna, who'd made a brief visit, before Palmer appeared--on crutches, in his boxers. He'd taken off his sweats to ice his knee and now stood there, awkwardly, making small talk with the coach's wife. When she left the room, Lewis asked Palmer how he was feeling. Palmer asked for an airplane. "I want to fly somewhere right now," Palmer said. "Let's do the surgery and get going."
Over the past four months, Palmer's will, seemingly as strong as his right arm, has been put to the test. The classically gifted quarterback (who waited two days before having surgery, in Houston, on Jan. 10) is in week 20 of a grueling but, so far, unusually smooth rehab program. Since the operation to repair his torn left anterior cruciate ligament, shredded medial collateral ligament, dislocated kneecap, and cartilage and tissue damage, Palmer's goal has been to play in Cincinnati's 2006 season opener, against the Chiefs in Kansas City on Sept. 10. "That's what keeps me going," he says, mindful that the normal range of recovery from such injuries is eight to 12 months. "I know that if I take a couple of weeks off I'm not going to be ready to play September 10."
Palmer began jogging last week and may participate in some noncontact drills at a minicamp next month. Bengals trainer Paul Sparling says Palmer's drive and focus have made him "an ideal patient" for an arduous rehab. "That's so Carson," says Kitna, who signed a free-agent deal with the Detroit Lions in March. "He never gets depressed, and he doesn't have bad days."
Palmer has never said, Why me? But he has spent a great deal of time wondering, Why them?
Palmer walks through the Bengals' training room on a Tuesday afternoon in mid-April. Having just taken the usual ribbing from flamboyant wideout Chad Johnson (who addresses him as "Snowflake," an out-of-thin-air nickname that makes Palmer wince), the 6'5" quarterback points to a pair of oversized, half-inflated rubber balls. "These help me with my balance," he says.
He stops. Something in the corner of the room catches his attention. It's a television mounted on the wall, the 20-inch set on which Palmer watched the Bengals and the Steelers after he was carted off the field. He remembers shivering and clutching his knee that day, lying sideways, facing away from the TV, having to strain his neck to see what was happening on the screen, which only added to his anguish.
Now this: The TV is airing a commercial for SI's special issue commemorating the Steelers' Super Bowl championship--featuring highlights of Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu and, oh, yes, Jerome Bettis in all his storybook splendor. Palmer groans. "That stuff drives me insane," he says. "They need to cut that out."