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PROVING GROUND LIES AHEAD FOR HOLECEK

John Holecek has been waiting 52 weeks for Saturday to come.

It was one year ago, in the preseason opener against Washington, that the Buffalo Bills inside linebacker tore a ligament in his right knee.

It was the second significant injury in Holecek's two seasons with the Bills and it was the third time he had torn ligaments in the right knee since his freshman year at the University of Illinois.

After nine long months of rehabilitation and two full weeks of training camp, Holecek is ready to return to game action Saturday when the Bills visit the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium.

He is excited but also mindful of his main goal.

"I'll be going all out, without a doubt," Holecek said. "And I want my day in the sun. But I want it to come during the season, when it really matters. I hope I'm around for 21 (games), including the preseason."

The Bills have been excited about the 6-foot-2, 242-pound Holecek since the day they picked him in the fifth round of the 1995 draft. They always have thought he could be a tough run-stuffer.

But after another operation, can he still move well enough to apply his strength and toughness? Both Holecek and the Bills say he is moving well in training camp. But the preseason games will be his true proving ground.

"Obviously, this is where I have to make a strong impression -- where I have to make my presence known and play well to make the team," Holecek said.

Holecek has a tough fight to make the squad because the Bills have a lot of linebacker talent.

Chris Spielman, a Pro Bowl-caliber talent, is one inside starter. Damien Covington is the other. Covington is not a lock to start, but he's having a good camp.

If Covington holds his spot, that would leave Holecek fighting for one of four backup jobs. Gabe Northern and Marlo Perry appear locks for two of those spots at present. That would leave Holecek, versatile veteran David White, athletic outside backer Dan Brandenburg and veteran Mark Maddox fighting for two backup positions.

"He's a tough, tough guy," said Spielman of Holecek. "I think he can be a good, solid player. I think he's moving fine. Obviously, I think he'd like to have that brace off. . . . He's such a hard-effort guy, he's got to watch himself and be smart enough to give it a rest when it needs it."

Holecek says the knee is holding up well.

"With my brace on, I don't feel anything," he said. "It's almost like a weapon. I feel I can do anything I want to it, throw it into piles or anything. It feels secure."

Holecek had to take Tuesday's practice off because of mild swelling in the knee. It was his first day off.

"I had gone through a lot of doubles, and they just wanted to keep me fresh," he said.

Holecek said he never thought his career was over when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament for a third time.

"Dr. (John) Marzo did a great job with it," Holecek said. "They said right from the start I had a good chance to come back. Because it'd already been repaired, it's probably not going to be any worse than it was. So I never gave up on my career."

Of course, his rehabilitation was anything but easy.

"The toughest time was just trying to move it right after surgery," he said. "There's so many short-term goals you can't even think of long term, like trying to run.

"You have to first get some motion in it, then get your strength back, then get complete movement, then walk, then jog, then run.

"It's the most monotonous, time-consuming thing I've ever done, rehabing the knee," he said, "because you have to work on it so much for so little gain for nine months."

Holecek returned to practice Wednesday. On one play, he ran step-for-step with back Rene Ingoglia down the sideline and the pass was incomplete. On another, tight end Lonnie Johnson got behind him for a catch in the corner of the end zone.

But pass coverage is not why Holecek would make the team. If he makes it, it will be because he stuffs running backs.

"He's real strong," said defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. "He might be our strongest guy at the point of attack."

"The front-side, run, when they're running toward me -- I take pride in doing my job and filling my hole in that situation," he said. "With my lack of athletic movement compared with some of these great athletes we have, that's where I'm going to have to be strong to make the team."

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