BOSTON (CBS) -- Thursday night was a night two years in the making for Patriots running back Tyler Gaffney.
A sixth-round pick out of Stanford by the Carolina Panthers in 2014, a meniscus injury ended what was supposed to be Gaffney's first season before training camp even started. He was waived by Carolina, who had hoped to store him on injured reserve, but was quickly scooped up by Bill Belichick and the Patriots. Belichick liked the player enough to add him to the team's 90-man roster before placing him on IR.
Entering 2015, the expectation was Gaffney would add some more competition to New England's running back corps. But another injury in training camp ended that campaign as well. It was back to IR for Gaffney, another test of patience for the former Stanford standout.
Gaffney finally got his shot on Thursday night in New England's preseason opener against the New Orleans Saints, and the 25-year-old took full advantage of the opportunity. He led the Patriots with 64 rushing yards on nine carries, with the bulk of those yards coming on a beautiful 44-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
"There wasn't a lot of thinking. It was just a big blur to me. It was a very surreal moment," Gaffney said of his scoring scamper after the 34-22 New England win. "I've played one year of football in the last four years. It's been great, these guys have been great. I mean that run was a good run, a good easy read. The line did a good job to get me started again."
Thursday night's performance did not catch Belichick by surprise.
"We knew two years ago in the 2014 season that he wouldn't play that year. Last year, unfortunately, he didn't get very far into training camp again but nobody worked harder than Tyler. He's there early, he stays late, never complains, always does extra, and so it's great to see him have an opportunity this year," the coach said after the win. "He has had a good year all spring and in training camp and has done a good job for us, and then got a chance to play tonight and had some positive plays tonight. Yeah, happy for him, happy that he's out there and got through the game and can just keep building on tonight's performance."
It's a credit to Gaffney's work ethic that he's back on the field after such a trying two-year run on IR. He's learned a lot about himself and the game through those tough 24 months, and that patience he displayed (both in his rehab and in hitting the holes on Thursday night) has made him a better player and person.
"It just humbles you in life," said Gaffney. "The thing you love the most and you came out here as an aspiring rookie and you get that taken away and then you finally rehab and come back and get that taken away again. It's a long time coming. It's been 730 days or something. Whatever it's been, more than two years, but these guys have been by my side and cheering me on as much as you can for an IR guy, but I felt welcomed back as soon as I was ready to go again.
"I feel like I've lived here for the past two years with rehab every day, meetings, watching the guys. I think that's helped myself grow and come along two years later," he added. "It felt like a lifetime, but to get back out here and to get a win for your first game back is great."
The running back position is one of the great unknowns with the Patriots this season. The depth chart is crowded, with Gaffney, LeGarrette Blount, Dion Lewis (currently on PUP), Brandon Bolden, Donald Brown, James White and undrafted rookie D.J. Foster, but there is no clear-cut No. 1 standing out right now. If he continues to impress in practice and in the preseason, Gaffney has a great chance to make New England's 53-man roster, and could even become one of the pieces to the Patriots' offense out of the backfield.
Gaffney's story is one that makes the preseason fun to follow. If he can keep it up, that story just may continue into the regular season.
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