CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -For four months, Mike Rucker has spent up to four hours a day rehabbing his knee.
Determined to return to the Carolina Panthers despite his age and the seriousness of his injury, the 32-year-old is grinding away, hoping to be ready to practice before the end of training camp.
``It's been tough because there hasn't been an offseason,'' Rucker said Friday. ``The day it happened, we started rehabbing the next day. That's part of the emotions that you go through when you have an injury like that because you know what is ahead of you.''
When Rucker tore the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee against Pittsburgh on Dec. 17, there were questions whether he would ever play for Carolina again. Nearing the end of his career, Rucker faced a long rehab and was due a $2.5 million roster bonus in the spring.
Rucker restructured his contract to stay with the Panthers, then started his grueling rehab. He's ahead of schedule and was able to do conditioning drills on an adjacent field while his teammates went through workouts this week.
``It's feeling better,'' Rucker said. ``This is a natural progression of dealing with something like this.''
Training camp starts in late July. Coach John Fox said he won't rush Rucker along, and the veteran's experience lessens the impact of missed practices.
``You always tweak a couple of things in every offseason,'' Fox said. ``But the fact that he's got those years of experience in our system, sure, it doesn't freak you out too bad.''
Rucker has been a staple with the Panthers since being drafted in the second round out of Nebraska in 1999. He made the Pro Bowl in 2003, when he had 12 sacks. Rucker ranks second in franchise history in tackles and had missed only three games in his career before the knee injury.
Some players might have called it quits. But Rucker didn't want his final NFL memory to be clutching his knee.
``When you come into this league, there are different hurdles you need to jump over, like being a rookie learning the playbook or competing at a high level,'' Rucker said.
``I look at this as a mission you go after,'' he added. ``That is what's fueling me - to not let an injury beat me.''
The Panthers seem confident Rucker will return, although they drafted defensive end Charles Johnson from Georgia in the third round. Rucker hopes to help Johnson and young defensive end Stanley McClover develop.
``I want to be able to do the same thing that was done with me with Reggie White and Eric Swann and Sean Gilbert, and be able to share that knowledge and pass that baton,'' Rucker said.

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