After having promising career derailed, Kellen Winslow is back in the game with Jets

Jets tight end Kellen Winslow throws out a Jets tight end Kellen Winslow throws out a stiff arm during the first half against the Giants at MetLife Stadium. (Aug. 24, 2013) Photo Credit: Lee S. Weissman

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Kellen Winslow Jr. was one of those toddlers who never fell down. His father can't remember ever seeing his son trip or display an ounce of clumsiness. From the day he took his first step, he was supremely comfortable in his own body.

"I knew by the age of 7, he was going to be a better athlete than I ever was," said Kellen Winslow Sr., the Chargers' Hall of Fame tight end. "I realized that it was going to be my goal to keep him away from tackle football as long as I possibly could."

Winslow grew up playing youth soccer, basketball and baseball in La Jolla, Calif. He also explored other interests such as music before he was allowed to join his high school football team as a freshman.

Thanks to his father, Winslow grew up knowing that there was a lot more to life than football. And that may go a long way in explaining how Winslow ended up being a Jet this season, how he persevered through two tough periods in his life in which the sport he always loved suddenly was taken away from him.

Winslow, 30, ignited a minor fantasy football frenzy in Week 1 when in his first game in almost a year, he caught seven passes for 79 yards and one touchdown in the Jets' win over Tampa Bay.

The performance caught many off guard, because there had been plenty of people who questioned just how much mileage was left in Winslow when the Jets signed him in May.

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From 2006 to 2011, Winslow was one of the most productive tight ends in the league, averaging 72 catches a season. He was able to do this despite ripping up his knee in a motorcycle accident that caused him to miss the entire 2005 season as he battled staph infections and endured knee surgeries.

In 2012, however, Winslow played in only one game -- he had one catch for New England -- after being a late-summer cut by Seattle when he refused to take a salary cut. Though there was speculation that Winslow was cut from the Patriots because of knee troubles, he has said the problem was that by the time he came into camp, he was too far behind in the playbook to compete for time with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

In some ways, sitting out most of last season was as hard as rehabbing from the motorcycle accident. Winslow believed he had the talent to play football on a high level.

"Here I was 29 about to turn 30, and no one was calling," Winslow said last week. "It was hard, really hard. I never lost confidence in my ability, but I lost confidence in the system. I was always determined that I would be back, but there were some days where I wondered if someone was going to want me."

Winslow credits his family -- his father and his wife, Janelle -- for helping him through the darker days.

"Kellen knows that football isn't everything, that there's so much more to his life," said Janelle, whom Winslow first met when he was 14 years old. "He knows his football career is not forever, but when it was taken away from him and not on his terms, it was a hard thing for me to see him go through."

Winslow has a quote on his left forearm from the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass. "Without struggle there is no progress," it reads. Winslow had it put there after his motorcycle accident, but it continues to inspire him today.

The Jets were the only team to call him this past spring. General manager John Idzik signed him to a one-year contract after a minicamp tryout in June.

So far, it seems to be a great fit. The team has been very careful with his knees, letting him sit out practice on Wednesdays to save the wear and tear. And Winslow has developed a nice bond with rookie quarterback Geno Smith. Despite having no catches in the Jets' win over Buffalo last week, Winslow is the Jets' third-leading receiver with 10 catches for 95 yards.

Coach Rex Ryan admitted that when the Jets signed Winslow, they weren't sure what they were going to get.

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"You want Kellen Winslow like you remember Kellen Winslow, and then when he got here, you weren't sure," Ryan said. "He hadn't played, he gets here and you're like, 'Oh, wow.' I see the skills. I see the great hands, the ground running and he moves better than I thought. He really is a warrior, there's no question, and that's what I see about him. He loves to play."

Winslow Sr. thinks the Jets are a great fit for his son. He plans to be at every home game and about half of the away games this season, cheering on the son whom he once wouldn't allow to play football.

"Right now, he's very happy," Winslow Sr. said. "Being there with Rex and Marty [Mornhinweg], it's a good place for him. He's at peace."

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