Sidelined, but in spirit

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January 02, 2009|By Ethan J. Skolnick South Florida Sun-Sentinel

DAVIE, Fla. - Arrive early Sunday. You might stumble upon two significant contributors to this remarkable 2008 season, before you even enter Dolphin Stadium to watch the rest of the team take that season into 2009.

"Tell the fans to come by and say hello," Justin Smiley says. "I'll probably have a couple of beers and then go enjoy the game. I'm so excited. I'll be tailgating with Greg [Camarillo]. Donald [Thomas] is going to come with us, too. It will be the IR crew."

Don't be afraid to ask that crew for a brew. Then you can toast the role of Smiley and Camarillo in this fairy tale that continues without them, one that has made them both "very proud."

"Their determination and heart has been amazing," Smiley said.

"The team doesn't bat its eyes," Camarillo said. "They keep fighting, keep going, no matter who is out there. It's really impressive to watch."

Camarillo and Smiley were impressive to watch for the first 11 (Camarillo) and 12 (Smiley) games this season. Camarillo emerged from the fringe to catch 55 passes before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Smiley established himself as the Dolphins' most consistent lineman before fracturing his right leg and ankle. But in the NFL, time - and a quality team - always marches on. Like crashed cars, injured players are simply towed to the side, out of the way, so traffic can keep moving.

Davone Bess stepped into Camarillo's spot and caught 30 passes over the final five games. Andy Alleman started the final four games in Smiley's left guard spot.

The Dolphins haven't lost since.

Still, for Camarillo and Smiley, it has been tough to accept the opportunity lost.

"The first couple of weeks were really difficult, because you don't feel as much a part of the team as you did before you got hurt," Camarillo says.

"To be that close to the playoffs..." Smiley says. "And I never had the chance to go to the playoffs in San Francisco."

Smiley, a free-agent addition, felt he was playing at the highest level of his five-year career and was hoping to attract Pro Bowl consideration.

"Then something freakish takes it away in an instant," he says. "That's life, I guess."

In the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Smiley felt his ankle pop. At halftime, he felt the bone high in his leg wasn't moving right. He might have returned in a couple of weeks from a broken fibula, but ankle surgery shelved him for the duration.

"And I hate it, because I went on IR the last two seasons," Smiley says. "And I want the fans to understand that I wish my luck would change."

He has watched the rest of the Dolphins' games from home, sometimes with his family. He has turned down game-day invitations from friends, wanting to protect his leg, and also because "I like to watch by myself. Everybody might not care as much as I do. I can focus on what Andy is doing, on what Jake [Long] is doing."

And he has greeted the team late at night at the airport after trips.

Camarillo has watched from home, too, though his address has changed. His parents recently visited from California to help him move from an apartment to a new Davie house, one that his new contract (signed two days before the injury) helped him afford.

"I obviously can't move boxes," he says.

The knee is healing enough to use a stationary bike. His psyche mends apace. He reflects upon the season as a "great ride," even though he'll be in the backseat Sunday, rather than driving. He won't even be on the sideline, and understands the reason - coach Tony Sparano prefers to eliminate any distractions.

"I'll be sitting with all the rest of the fans," says Camarillo, who will attend with his brother Jeff, the latter likely wearing a replica 83 jersey. "This is the first time I will attend an NFL game and sit in the stands in God knows how many years."

He'll be cheering. Perhaps even cheering up.

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