SPARTANBURG -- With every passing milestone, Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme shrugs.
He was matter-of-fact about throwing his first Nerf ball in the winter, blasé about throwing actual leather balls to actual receivers in May, nonchalant about taking non-contact reps in June and unruffled by coming to camp two weeks ago.
So why should playing in his first sort-of-real game since elbow reconstruction surgery bother him?
"To me, I'm not looking at it any different than any first other preseason game," Delhomme said of Saturday's exhibition opener against Indianapolis. "You like to go out there and be productive and see what happens. I don't have any clue how long I will play. I think so many guys who are coming back from an injury, they want to get out there. But I don't feel that way.
"I'm not looking at it as being extremely nervous. I just don't feel that way. It's just another game."
Of course, there is one big difference, as Delhomme's eligible to be turned and twisted and tackled for the first time since Sept. 23, 2007, when his throwing arm exploded in Atlanta. He had Tommy John surgery a month later, and everything since has been the long, slow road to recovery.
And while some players in such situations long for the first tackle, the first pop, to prove to themselves that they're back, Delhomme said he has no such interest.
"I really truly don't feel that way," he said Thursday. "I have no apprehension at all. I don't know if I'm being naïve, but I don't feel that way at all."
The attitude is consistent with the way Delhomme's handled himself -- well or ill -- since coming to the Panthers. He was never drafted and never expected to do much, so the trappings of the game never seem to matter to him, only the results.
As a result, the latest step in his path back to the field carries no significance, no more so than a practice would. It's another step, but where he takes it and who's watching matters not at all.
He said he hasn't had any setbacks since beginning his rehabilitation, which was helped by the fact it began in the lonely winter months, when he and the trainers were among the few people present on the ground floor of Bank of America Stadium. Combined with the fact his throwing arm had bothered him since 2005, the surgery with the name baseball pitchers fear never seemed to elicit much dread.
"It couldn't get worse. That was always my deal," Delhomme said. "It's got to get better (than it was). It couldn't feel like it did. It felt too good after I hurt myself. It sounds stupid, but I didn't have the pain. I didn't have the pain during the night or waking up in the morning. I didn't have the pain of when I would grab certain things. I didn't have that anymore. That was more mentally refreshing than anything else."
Delhomme said during the 2005 season, he could tell something was ticking in his elbow, he just didn't know it was a time bomb. Washing his face or brushing his teeth became issues, his arm would lock up if he slept the wrong way. He revealed that he received cortisone shots late in the 2005 season, which carried him through the playoff run and the Pro Bowl, but the pain returned quickly once 2006 got under way, and he found a bone spur and the problems began to snowball.
Then when he attempted a short pass to Brad Hoover during the third quarter against the Falcons, the avalanche hit the skier full force.
"It was a different feeling than I have ever had in my life," Delhomme said. "It was like: 'OK, something just went.'"
It's that simple. An injury that ends careers was the next thing he had to overcome, no different from a coaching staff that didn't want him in New Orleans, once upon a time.
That's why these days, Delhomme's nothing if not grateful, and you can see it. Always one of the team's leading jokers, he's laughing more this year, genuinely enjoying his time in camp, as much as you can.
"It's good to have him back," offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson said with a grin at the understatement. "I kind of feel like we're back to where we were last year at this time. We felt like things were starting to click, starting to feel comfortable. Guys are rallying around him."
Left tackle Jordan Gross said he can sense some eagerness in his quarterback, but he knows him well enough to know he's not working himself into a lather about the series or so he'll see Saturday. Mostly, he's picked up on the gratitude.
"Most players I've seen, as you get older, you realize your years might be numbered," Gross said. "I'm not saying Jake's done anytime soon. But he's comfortable here, he's enjoying it, and he feels good, his elbows feeling good, so he's having a great time."
Delhomme chuckled when Gross' comment was mentioned. After all, he considers himself a young 33, since he threw just 86 passes in his six seasons before coming to the Panthers in 2002.
"I enjoy camp," he said without a trace of irony or sarcasm. "I don't get hit. I don't run like the receivers. It's not as bad for me. I just enjoy it. This is my 12th NFL camp and I'm not going with 12 more. I enjoy it. I like the guys on this team and I like the coaches. I think most of the guys as they get older tend to enjoy it because you realize how blessed you are to play this game.
"When you look at it coming in, we have so many new faces and I am, and I'm proud of that fact I am an older one. But also you have to subtract six years because I didn't get hit for six years, so that always helps."