Always in pain, Conwell plays on

NEW ORLEANS -- New Orleans Saints tight end Ernie Conwell has had surgery 13 times in his eight-year NFL career, and even that stat doesn't tell the whole story.

"I've separated my right shoulder twice, but didn't have surgery on it," Conwell chuckled. "I've had a number of concussions. I've been knocked out in a game, I think that was 1998 against the Jets. And I've broken my ribs a few times."

The latest injury was a fractured ankle last November which put him on injured reserve for the second time in his career. It was a bad injury, but not the worst he's had.

"No, no, no," Conwell said. "The worst was in '98 when I dislocated my left knee. I had to have four knee operations on that knee to get back."

The injury happened on Oct. 25 when Conwell was playing for the St. Louis Rams. Conwell returned in time to play in three regular season games and three playoff games in 1999.

"I love playing this game, and part of playing it is being able to overcome setbacks," Conwell said. "Overcoming setbacks weekly when you're playing in a game and have something happen -- penalty, turnover, mistake made. You have to deal with that and overcome it. And the same thing is true when you have an injury."

And then there is the example Conwell wants to set for his four children.

"I want my kids to see that Dad had some things happen to him, but look at how he responded to them," Conwell said. "I want my kids to see that when something happened I just dug down and kept working."

The good news for the Saints is that Conwell is healthy again.

Before he was injured last season, Conwell was on pace to have his most productive receiving year. He finished with 26 receptions for 290 yards, an average of 11.2 yards a catch, and two touchdowns.

When Conwell went down, Boo Williams stepped up, making 41 catches for 436 yards (10.6 yards per catch) and five touchdowns.

"Ernie has taught me a lot," Williams said. "We have some big goals for the tight end position this year. With the two of us, it's going to be a big part of the offense."

Conwell agrees. He and Williams are co-starters in the double tight end formations and will mix it up in single tight end formations, he said.

"Boo and I sit around and talk about it all the time," Conwell said. You've got two solid players at that position and you can take advantage of what each guy can bring to the table."

Last year Williams and Conwell were the third best tight-end tandem in the league, with Conwell missing six games. This year, their goal is to be No. 1.

"Assuming we can stay healthy," Conwell said.

Conwell, 34, who is married to his junior-high school sweetheart, has a degree in sociology and is just shy of one in history. In the offseason he attends Victory Leadership Institute and works for Bethel Church in Brentwood, Tenn. He plans to earn his degree in theology before he ends his NFL career.

"That's what I feel called to," Conwell said. "But I hope to finish the final four years on my contract with the Saints first. If I can stay healthy."