CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -Jake Delhomme couldn't get through simple tasks such as washing his face and brushing his teeth without shooting pain in his right elbow. When he went to bed, he had to make sure to keep his arm straight so he could sleep comfortably.
Cortisone shots became welcomed relief during the season, and the Carolina Panthers quarterback knew it was getting worse.
Now, less than a year after he felt his elbow pop after completing a short pass, a pain-free Delhomme and his new elbow return to the field for Saturday's preseason opener against Indianapolis.
``I have no apprehension at all,'' insisted Delhomme, who underwent months of grueling rehabilitation following ligament-replacement surgery. ``I don't know if I'm being naive, but I don't feel that way.''
The carefree attitude stems from the smooth recovery after doctors removed the shredded ligament in the elbow of his throwing arm and replaced it with a tendon from his left thigh. Known as Tommy John surgery, the procedure is more commonly performed on baseball pitchers.
After also getting a bone spur removed and a muscle tear repaired, Delhomme rested the elbow for three months. He started throwing a Nerf ball in February, then graduated to a heavier ball and finally a regulation ball.
He slowly increased the number of throws and the distance, but the team remained cautious. Delhomme only threw on the side during May's minicamp.
Delhomme practiced in team drills during optional workouts in June, and was cleared for the start of training camp. While he's been limited to one practice a day, many teammates have said his arm appears stronger than ever.
``I have done a bunch of interviews and they are like, 'Were you nervous to throw the ball or let it loose?' And I was like, 'No, because I've had no setbacks,''' Delhomme said. ``I didn't try to rush it.
``When we started throwing, nobody was around. It wasn't like it was April and guys are working out or May and we have minicamp and I'm trying to push it. I didn't have to push it because nobody was there. So that worked in my favor.''
Delhomme thinks his body was telling him something early last season. Despite his quick start - eight touchdown passes and one interception - the pain wouldn't go away. While Delhomme said the elbow first started hurting during his Pro Bowl season in 2005, something was different leading up to the game against Atlanta in late-September.
``It always hurt to practice, but it just didn't feel right,'' Delhomme said. ``I remember vividly talking to my wife on a Friday afternoon ... and she asked how was practice and how is the arm? I said it was miserable this week. I don't know. It was just miserable this week. Your body just tells you sometimes.''
Delhomme feels the key hit occurred when Falcons defensive end John Abraham tried to rip the ball away from him at the beginning of a third-quarter drive. Delhomme finished the series, throwing a touchdown pass to tight end Jeff King.
But on the next possession, Delhomme's elbow popped after throwing a short pass over the middle to fullback Brad Hoover.
``It felt too good after I hurt myself. It sounds stupid, but I didn't have the pain,'' Delhomme said. ``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.''
Now pain-free, the 33-year-old, always excitable Delhomme has appeared even more energetic at training camp this summer.
``I think most players I've seen, as you get older, you realize your years might be numbered,'' tackle Jordan Gross said. ``I'm not saying Jake is done anytime soon, but I think he knows he's comfortable here. He's enjoying it, his elbow feels good and he's definitely having a lot of fun.''
Delhomme likely won't play more than a series or two Saturday against the Colts. But it's clear after last year's disastrous finish without Delhomme that the Panthers need their starting QB.
And after spending most of last season wearing a sling, Delhomme craves football.
``This is my 12th NFL camp and I'm not going to 12 more,'' Delhomme said. ``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.''

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