It was early during practice last August, two days before a Thursday night NFL preseason game between the Falcons and Dolphins.
Atlanta free safety Shann Schillinger was in two-deep coverage as part of a simple two-minute drill. But when he planted and drove off his right foot, he felt a pop. Schillinger knew something was wrong.
Schillinger, a Baker native and former standout at the University of Montana, had torn a ligament in his foot, an injury that jeopardized his chance of sticking on the Falcons’ roster with the final cut just a couple weeks away.
“It couldn’t have come at a worse time,” he said.
It was difficult for him to put any weight on his foot, which made him useless on defense and, even worse, entirely expendable.
But the Falcons weren’t ready to give up on the Montana-made Schillinger.
As a result of the ailment, Schillinger was placed on injured reserve, meaning he kept his roster spot throughout the 2012 season. Though inactive, he was still able to rehab at the team facility, attend meetings, travel with the squad and, in the end, experience Atlanta’s run to the NFC championship game.
It’s been seven months since the injury, and Schillinger is gearing up for the Falcons’ first minicamp beginning April 22.
The 6-foot, 200-pound Schillinger, who opted to not have surgery, says he isn’t quite 100 percent yet. But he’s close.
The goal now is to re-establish himself on the field, survive the offseason grind and again make the final 53-man roster for the Falcons’ 2013 season opener in September.
“I’m excited to get going again and be around some of the guys. I look forward to competing,” Schillinger said. “My No. 1 concern is to get through these minicamps healthy. You can’t make the team if you’re on the sidelines hurt.
“Also, I need to continue to grasp the defense and be comfortable with it. They put a lot on the safeties to make calls, so it’s very important. I’ll just continue to work hard, study and put myself in the best situation to succeed.”
To doubt Schillinger is to doubt what he’s all about.
Chosen by Atlanta in the sixth round of the 2010 draft, Schillinger made the active roster two years in a row as a backup safety, and played primarily on special teams.
Schillinger readily admits the Falcons took interest in him due to the success of another Grizzlies product, defensive end Kroy Biermann. Both Schillinger and Biermann thrived in Missoula during the tenure of previous coach Bobby Hauck, and have since earned the respect of Atlanta coach Mike Smith.
To a man, Schillinger was never the fastest, strongest or most talented player on the field at Montana. But he exudes maturity and humility, and he took great advantage of every opportunity.
Colt Anderson, Schillinger’s safety partner in 2008, has become a rock star in recent Griz lore. Yet the program wouldn't have had as much success in those years without Schillinger, who was arguably the smartest and most technically sound player of the Hauck era.
Schillinger, whose dad Jim played for the Grizzlies in 1969-70, broke out as a junior in ’08 by making 108 tackles, picking off four balls and breaking up a team-high 10 passes. The following year as a senior captain, he made 90 stops with four interceptions and six pass breakups.
The Grizzlies went to the national title game of the Football Championship Subdivision in both years.
Frankly, it was a continuation of Schillinger’s stellar high school career at Baker. Though he wasn’t heavily recruited, Schillinger helped the Spartans win three Class B state championships, and made Hauck and then-defensive coordinator Kraig Paulson look like geniuses for giving him a shot.
Schillinger is one of several former Griz players to make it the NFL in the last few years -- Anderson, Biermann, Marc Mariani, Lex Hilliard and Trumaine Johnson are among them.
But to remain with the Falcons, Schillinger has a summer of hard work ahead of him. At the very least, you know he’ll give it everything he’s got to seize his chance.
He always has.
“Most years, they keep four safeties. I want to be that third safety,” Schillinger said. “We have our two starters, and they’ve paid them. But I want to be that third guy, and if I’m the third guy I’ll feel really good about where I’m at.
“But I can’t make mental errors when I’m out there. I have to know what I’m doing. And I have to continue to be a core special teams guy. To be a backup safety, you have to be very good on special teams. That’s kind of where my role is, and I embrace it.
“I think being hurt last year made me appreciate what I do. Sometimes when you’re in the grind of a season you forget how special playing in the NFL is. And last year I got to sit back and watch, and it made me really appreciate what my job is and how important it is to me.”