You would have to look far and wide to find a player in the National Football League who doesn't love playing football.
Talent is a given if you want to make it at the highest level, but you also have to love the game and possess the desire to persevere through its brutality in order to succeed.
Chris Hairston has always had the talent, a highly sought-after high school recruit from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, who went on to star at Clemson, which in turn led him to become a fourth-round pick of the Bills in 2011.
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But last year, the offensive lineman confirmed to himself just how much he loved football, and how much it has meant to him for more than half his life, when the game was taken away from him.
"It was a rough time, but it was a time to reflect and really understand what was important," Hairston said of 2013 when he sat out the entire season due to an undisclosed ailment that he steadfastly refuses to divulge information about. "It helped me learn a lot about myself, and how important this game is to me and to my family."
Hairston was at St. John Fisher College last summer, but a back injury limited his practice time. Eventually, he couldn't do anything and he was ultimately placed on injured reserve, not because of the back, but for what was described as a non-football illness. He went home to North Carolina to take care of his issue and was barely heard from at One Bills Drive.
"I wasn't around the team much at all," he said. "My doctors were down in North Carolina and the weekly visits sort of kept me from going back and forth."
It wasn't until early March, just before the start of the voluntary workout program, that Hairston was finally cleared to resume his career, though it was a career that certainly seemed in jeopardy — at least in Buffalo — when the Bills signed free agent guard Chris Williams and drafted three other offensive linemen.
However, a funny thing happened along the way: Coach Doug Marrone, an old offensive lineman at heart, decided to give Hairston some reps at the guard positions to see how he'd do. Hairston had never played inside at any point, but the 320-pounder did pretty well, and through the first week of training camp he's been getting more time inside than he has at his natural tackle position.
"It's about the seventh day I've played at guard in my life, so it doesn't feel natural to me because it's not something I've done time and time again, but that just comes with practice," said the 25-year-old. "They're giving me a lot of snaps at guard, giving me a lot of footwork drills, and I've spent a lot of time in practice. Coach likes it, he sees that it's something I can contribute to the team, and I think that's why he's giving me a shot."
The more versatile you are, the more valuable an asset you can be, especially on the offensive line. The Bills will probably keep eight linemen, perhaps nine, and if you can fill in at a variety of spots, it's a huge advantage.
"Changing positions, that helps you broaden out," he said. "It's hard to become a master at one, but it just takes the extra bit of time, something I have to focus on. The only way I can help this team is to be the best I can be at that position, and if it happens to be multiple positions, that's what I'll do."
"Yes, it is," Marrone said the other day when he was asked if the right guard job is up for grabs.As of now, Hairston — who started 15 games at tackle over his first two NFL seasons — is not only in the mix to earn back the roster spot he had to forfeit last season, he's sharing first-team reps at right guard with holdover starter Kraig Urbik.
Center Eric Wood has been impressed with how Hairston has handled the burden of learning a new position.
"Like anything, there's little nuances that he's learning," said Wood. "The guys he''s going against are a little bigger inside, you've got to be a little tighter, but he's doing a good job of learning. A lot of times tackles are more successful going in than guards are going out."
Wood has dealt with two serious injuries in his career that sidelined him for elongated periods. Defensive tackle Kyle Williams also missed significant time in the 2011 season. They know how difficult it has been for Hairston to regain his swagger after being out an entire year.
"I know from experience coming back after most of a season layoff how tough it is to get back into the swing of it, getting used to carrying the weight of your pads and hitting guys." said Williams. "We have a long camp and he has a long time before we have to play to get a good feel for it."
Hairston recognizes he has been given what amounts to a fresh start, and he doesn't want to squander the opportunity.
"It's such a huge part of my life for what, 13 years, and to just stop football completely and focus on my health was rough," he said. "Being away from it shows you that although you might not like being out here on the hot days, it's something that you really want to do."
Training camp notes
Fred Jackson was kicked in the lower leg during Friday night's practice about three-fourths of the way through, and he was held out of Saturday night's workout at St. John Fisher College. Coach Doug Marrone said he didn't expect Jackson to be out long.
• The Bills have a shortage of tight ends because Chris Gragg continues to be sidelined due to a problem he had early in the week relating to the heat which hospitalized him for two days. Also, Tony Moeaki has a hamstring pull, and he's going to be out for a bit, so the Bills signed Dominque Jones. To make room, offensive lineman Mark Asper was waived.
The 26-year-old Jones entered the NFL in 2012 as an undrafted free agent with the Indianapolis Colts. The 6-3, 270 pounder has appeared in 12 career games while spending time with both the Colts and the Kansas City Chiefs.
• Sunday's practice begins at 2 p.m.