There was one thing that drove Nick Gates through all the darkness and doubt during the 13-month, seven-surgery, two-titanium-rod process of returning from a shattered lower left leg suffered in Week 2 against Washington last season.

“I just wanted to play football again,” he said.

On Wednesday he did.

Gates, whose injury was so severe it was considered career-threatening and for whom the Giants were as recently as this offseason concerned more about his “quality of life” than his ability to play, was medically cleared to return to practice. He remains on reserve/PUP and has three weeks to be either promoted to the active roster or revert to season-ending injured reserve. Because he began the season on PUP this is the earliest he was eligible to return to the field.

“Impressive,” coach Brian Daboll said of Gates’ journey. “We had a walkthrough earlier and had him break down the team. Much respect to really anybody that comes back from injuries, but his injuries were significant. All the surgeries and he’s had nothing but a positive mindset since he’s been here. The guys were hooting and hollering when he was breaking them down. You root for guys like that. It’s a tough industry we’re in, in terms of physical things that can happen. Just a lot of respect for him and what he’s done and proud of the young man.”

Gates did all of his individual drills and even played four team reps in his first practice back. He started at both center and guard for the Giants and could eventually work his way toward being a backup at either of those positions and potentially earn a starting job at guard if he proves healthy enough to actually play.

More important than personnel matters and depth charts, though, his return gives an emotional boost to a team that saw nearly a dozen players miss time because of injury at various times during Sunday’s win over the Bears. Gates is very popular in the locker room and many in the organization have marveled at the dedication he has shown in fighting to get back on the field.

“It was exciting to have Gates back,” left tackle Andrew Thomas said. “Obviously he went through a lot. It’s a miracle to see him out there.”

Gates said he might have been back sooner had he not had several setbacks that included compartment syndrome in his calf and an infection around the initial titanium rod inserted from his knee to his ankle. That rod had to be removed and replaced this past winter, the last of his seven surgeries.

Since then Gates said he has been pounding and testing the leg and its internal support throughout his rehab and he is convinced it is stronger than it was before the injury.

“You could run a truck over this thing,” he said, knocking on his shin as if he could hear the metallic ping.

Of course he still hasn’t come all the way back.

“It’s still a little bit of a ways ahead,” he said of returning to an actual game. “I’m just trying to make the team, basically. Put my best foot forward the next three weeks and not give them any reason to cut me.”

NOTES & QUOTES Sterling Shepard said he intends to travel with the team to London. He was on the sideline with them for the Bears game less than a  week after tearing his ACL against Dallas. He said he believes he partially tore the ligament two plays or so before the one on which he collapsed while simply jogging at the end of a route … The Giants could get a boost in their wide receiver depth with Kadarius Tonry (hamstring) and Wan’Dale Robinson (knee) both limited in Wednesday’s practice. Toney appears to be ahead of Robinson and may play Sunday. Fellow WR Kenny Golladay (knee) did not practice and could miss several weeks. WR Richie James (ankle) did not practice Wednesday, either … LB Azeez Ojulari (calf) and S Julian Love (concussion) were the defensive starters who did not practice. Love was running on the side during the workout, one of the steps to return in the league’s protocols.

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