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Photo courtesy of John Carlson John Carlson with wife Danielle and son William.

Litchfield's Carlson takes a look ahead

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In the NFL, it's amazing what a new year can bring.

In the first month of 2011, John Carlson was laying on the Qwest Field turf, a failed onside kick attempt cradled in his arms, fans roaring at ear-splitting decibels and his Seattle Seahawks just moments away from making NFL history.

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Carlson caught two touchdown passes that day to help the Seahawks dethrone the reigning Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints, 41-36, marking the first time that a team with a losing regular season record had won a playoff game. The win sent Carlson and the Seahawks to play at Chicago a week later with a shot at the Super Bowl on the line.

It might have seemed as if his football life couldn't get any better.

Fast forward 365-some days, and the former Litchfield High School and Notre Dame star once again watched a Super Bowl champion go down to defeat. This time, however, he witnessed the New York Giants' dismantling of the Green Bay Packers from the comfort of his Seattle home.

Unlike last year, the 7-9 Seahawks were nowhere to be found as the postseason began. And neither was Carlson.

"It's definitely been challenging," said Carlson, 27, who missed the entire 2011 season with a shoulder injury suffered last summer in training camp that required surgery. "Psychologically, it's been a lot harder than I thought it would be, especially right after the surgery. As an athlete, you're used to working out every day and being on a schedule. Then, my shoulder was immobilized in a sling for six weeks and I couldn't do anything. That was tough."

Carlson is now almost healthy and entering a unique time in his career.

A 2008 second-round draft pick out of Notre Dame, Carlson caught 55 passes for 627 yards and 5 touchdowns as a rooking, then followed that with 51 catches for 574 yards and 7 TDs in 2009. Last season, he caught 31 passes for 318 yards and one score, but he made the two big scoring catches in the Seahawks' upset of the Saints.

Now, he's coming off the injury and says he's about a month ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation. The 6-foot-5, 251-pound Carlson is also coming back at a time when big, athletic tight ends like him are all the rage in the NFL, with the likes of the Saints' Jimmy Graham, the 49ers' Vernon Davis and New England's Rob Gronkowski and Adrian Hernandez showcasing skills that present mind-numbing mismatches for defensive play callers.

And he could be entering free agency, with his rooking contract of $4.52 million - with $2.5 million guaranteed - set to expire in March.

"Guys like Hernandez, Gronkowski, Graham, Vernon Davis, those guys are freaks who can make incredible plays," Carlson said. "They create such big matchup problems. I'm not putting myself in that category as an athlete, but it's an exciting time to be a tight end."

So it's interesting to speculate on how his life might change once more in the coming year, as a young, now-healthy tight end who, potentially, could be entering free agency.

"The way it works right now is that I can only talk to the Seahawks," said Carlson, who would be a free agent as of March 13 if no deal is finalized. "I've been in contact with my agent and there have been conversations with the team. They're interested in keeping me around, but at this point we're not sure how interested they are."

Therein lies the rub: The Seahawks signed Oakland Raiders vet Zach Miller to a five-year, $34 million deal in August 2011, less than two weeks before Carlson suffered his shoulder injury.

The Seahawks opened their preseason schedule against San Diego on a Thursday. On Saturday, Carlson dove for a ball during practice, landed on the shoulder and felt "a weird pain."

"The pain wore off and later in practice I was pass blocking and a guy made an inside move and I stepped down to cut him off," Carlson said. "I hit him and my arm went dead, like I didn't have any strength at all in the shoulder. That's when I realized it was something more serious."

The injury was evaluated. The labrum is a thick band of cartilage that facilitates great shoulder flexibility, but a tear can make the shoulder too unstable to allow continued play. Rest and rehabilitation can be the answer in some cases, but team physicians deemed the damage to Carlson's labrum too significant for rest and rehab and they recommended surgery.

At the time, Seattle head coach Peter Carroll was quoted in Seattlepi.com, "It's disappointing because John has had a great start to camp. He was rocking and rolling and those two guys (Carlson and Miller) out there played really good. We're going to miss John. We were really counting on him to have a fantastic year for us. That's a big loss for us."

The conventional thinking among Carlson watchers was that the team signed Miller with the intention of letting Carlson go after this season. But it's not like the Seahawks' other tight ends tore up the league in his absence.

Miller caught just 25 passes for 233 yards and no touchdowns. Miller, a 2007 second-round pick of the Oakland Raiders, came to the Seahawks with 226 career catches for 2,712 yards and 12 TDs.

Another Seahawks tight end, Anthony McCoy, had 13 receptions for 146 yards and no scores this season. The team is high on second-year man Cameron Morrah, but he finished this season with just 6 catches for 74 yards and he, too, never reached the end zone.

While Carlson awaits a call from the Seahawks this spring, he continues to improve his strength and conditioning so his skills can continue to speak for him.

"Again, I'm not putting myself in the same category (as Hernandez and the others) but I try to be an all-around player," Carlson said. "I want to be able to pass protect as well as create matchup problems down the field. All tight ends want to catch the ball, but I think you have to be able to do it all."

Getting back to doing that has been difficult. Carlson said a pro football player's life is "incredibly scheduled." Days and weeks are meticulously planned. When injured, that's gone.

"To have it thrown off like that is really hard," Carlson said. "When you're on injured reserve, your responsibility to the team is to do your rehab. You don't go to meetings or things like that. I had some contact with my position coaches, but it's odd because you're really not part of the team anymore (when on injured reserve). We're kind of a separate group."

The first six weeks following surgery, when his arm was immobilized, were the worst of times, he said. Once he was able to take a more active role in his rehabilitation, the rough edges of his recovery were sanded down somewhat.

"It wasn't quite so bad after that," Carlson said. "I really like the training aspect of football and I was able to get back to that a little more."

And he found another upside in the time he was able to spend with his young family. Carlson and his wife Danielle -- who met John at Notre Dame, where she was a volleyball player -- will celebrate their fourth wedding anniversary in July. They have a 15-month-old son, William.

"The silver lining was being able to have the family time I wouldn't have had in the mix of playing football," he said.

So with that, Carlson will wait and see what lies ahead for a player who, while rebounding, should have the prime of his career ahead of him.

"My wife and I love Seattle, we love the people here and we have a lot of friends and we're connected to the community," Carlson said. "I would be happy to be back here, but I also understand the business side of it."

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Tom Larson

Tom Larson is the sports editor of the West Central Tribune.

(320) 214-4372
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