ON a Saturday morning in mid-January, Steven Daniels jogged for the first time in eight and a half months.
And as he trotted gingerly around Ballygunner's indoor Astro turf, under the watchful eye of Waterford senior hurling team physio Conor McCarthy, it felt like he was finally getting somewhere.
A breeze on his face, feeling his heart-rate rising and beads of sweat forming on his brow. Good to be back, but still a road to travel.
A sense of achievement, nevertheless, and a first semi-vigorous run for Daniels since smashing his kneecap last April.
He was on crutches when he collected the inter-provincial medal he won playing for Munster last year, at a function in Ballykisteen Hotel back in May.
There, he traded stories with Cork forward Paudie O'Sullivan, who was also resigned to a summer without hurling because of a broken leg.
And Daniels (23) was also in touch with TJ Reid, the Kilkenny forward who suffered a similar injury in the 2012 All-Ireland final replay against Galway.
For Daniels, the timing couldn't have been worse. Just over a month out from the Munster SHC opener against Clare, he was caught by his Offaly opponent at the throw-in of a challenge match in Tipperary town.
The Offaly man pulled high and Daniels caught the heel of the hurl flush on the kneecap.
His patella was smashed and after renowned surgeon Tadhg O'Sullivan performed the operation, the Déise ace tried to come to terms with the confirmation that he would be out of action for six to eight months.
It's taken a little bit longer than that, however, with little setbacks here and there. Like the time before Christmas when he aggravated his right knee in the swimming pool. Recovery delayed by two and a half weeks and more frustration, more worries, more doubts.
But jogging again, under the supervision of McCarthy, was a massive step forward.
He's also been using a KneeHab machine to help speed up the process, a device that pulses muscles that have been pretty much inactive since he got injured.
An added complication was the fact that Daniels was preparing for crucial examinations at Cork IT when the incident occurred. But when he needed them most, his mates rallied round.
"After it happened, I was in an awful awkward position, because I was doing my final exams for an honours business degree," Daniels says.
"I had six exams and had to get through them stuck in Waterford. I couldn't walk with the crutches, so I had no way of getting to Cork."
In his hour of need, Cork's Ciarán Sheehan, who has returned to Australian Rules Football, and Tipperary man John Sheedy visited with study material.
Daniels remembers: "I had to sit in the bedroom for two weeks, non-stop study. Then I got sorted with a room for doing my exams, you're not in a big massive room with the crutches. I got through the exams.
"Then stuff with the knee kicked in. I wasn't thinking about the knee, because I was occupied with exams. If I didn't get through them, I couldn't apply for the H-Dip which I'm doing at the moment.
"So, then the knee kicked in. After, there were staples in it and they take them out and the rehab starts very slowly from then.
"There have been a few ups and downs on the way. Depressed at times, thinking what's going on with this?
"I was told small stages, take it every two weeks, have a goal for every week, two weeks, three weeks. I've got used to it now – it is coming along."
A scar 8cm long and 1.5cm wide serves as an everyday reminder of his trauma.
Initial surgery saw wires and pins inserted to wrap the affected area together and further surgery removed the metal a few months later.
"It was bad luck – a throw ball," Daniels says. "I was out at midfield, usually I play in the backs. I was getting a run out the pitch; I wanted to get out and use fitness a bit more. I didn't think it was that bad originally."
He remembers sitting in the Sean Treacy Park dugout receiving treatment from Waterford medics and he told himself that he'd ice the joint for a couple of days before heading for an x-ray on the Monday.
But when he struggled desperately to get out of his car after arriving home, Daniels knew he needed a scan quicker than that.
His worst fears were confirmed the next day, a Saturday. The patella was broken in half.
"The main issue I've had over the last few months was getting back the muscle," he explains.
"The (muscle) wastage was unbelievable – main quad and on the inside of the quad.
"The main one is coming back now. It hadn't moved in five to six months, just dead. I couldn't contract or do much with it.
"I've been using a device for my knee, KneeHab; you wrap up your quad in it and it pulses your muscles. And I've found it great; it definitely improved things."
When he will return, he doesn't know. Semple Stadium against Cork on May 25 is a date he's visualised, but there's an element of limbo about his situation.
"There's always going to be bumps along the way," says Daniels.
"I spoke to lads on the Waterford panel who had surgery before – Richie Foley had hip operations and groins.
"He told me be prepared for setbacks and I was told that in the hospital too. Everything's not going to go 100pc to plan.
"If you haven't used your leg for six months, how can you expect it not to be sore when you're going through your exercises or whatever.
"I had a few setbacks, nothing major, the longest could have been two, two and a half weeks, three weeks. It just sets you back from continuing your original programme so you just take a step back."
Naturally, Daniels would love to be involved. His relationship with new Waterford manager Derek McGrath dates back many years.
The pair are De La Salle clubmates, although Daniels smiles when he reveals how fate could have seen him link up with the Ballygunner club.
"I originally enrolled in Ballygunner primary school, which would have been closer to my home, but the time the school finished, 2.0, did not suit my mother to collect me," he says.
"So, she enrolled me in St Declan's National School, right across the road from De La Salle college, the secondary school.
"That's where hurling started, from a primary school point of view. Because they were linked to the De La Salle club. I started training with them on a Saturday morning in the De La Salle college field.
"It's mad how things work out – they're (Ballygunner) the greatest rivals."
In secondary school, Daniels was a key member of the DLS teams that won back-to-back Harty and All-Ireland titles in 2007 and 2008, with McGrath as manager.
And when the Waterford senior job became vacant last year, Daniels hoped that McGrath would get the nod.
He says: "I've never worked with (Peter) Queally, so I couldn't give an honest opinion there, but in my own mind, Derek was always the man for me.
"Unbelievably organised, couldn't speak highly enough of him. He's had a massive influence all the way through my hurling career.
"He's always been there, a fella you can look up to and say anything to, straight up.
"He's honest out, says exactly what on his mind, tells you how it is. That's why he's so inspiring. We really want to work hard for him because we respect him so much."
And make no mistake, Daniels could offer McGrath so much.
On those DLS schools teams, he emerged as one of the county's most promising young stars and he's already the holder of three county SHC medals and two Munster titles with the club.
Daniels, on teaching practice at Newtown senior school in Waterford until March 9, also featured for Cork IT on their march to a Fitzgibbon Cup final in 2012, the same year he made his senior championship debut for the county.
Capable of playing at corner-back or wing-back, Daniels was knocking around the panel before then, but in 2010 he decided to opt out when it became apparent to him that he would not feature that summer under then manager Davy Fitzgerald.
So he took himself to South Carolina for the summer, a decision he is at peace with, despite the Déise's march to Munster glory.
"I was involved up until a certain point. I thought in my own mind, I was a lower number on the panel, I was 20+, didn't think I was going to be on the team," he confirms.
"If I have to say there was a regret, it was missing out on a Munster medal, but knowing I wasn't going to be on the team..."
So, in many ways, Daniels' intercounty career has yet to really take off. Whether it will or not this year is a moot point.
He admits: "I can't give a date, a lot of people are asking me. At the moment I'm taking it on a month-by-month basis.
"I get monitored every month, to see where I'm at, where I'm improving, what I need to work on more.
"Watching the lads training, you'd be wondering, 'will I be able to go into a tackle again, hop off the ground?'
"But that was months ago, I'm a lot more confident now. I can see myself training, running up and down the line.
"Conor's the main man, a new man in this year, from Tramore. It's my first time working with him, I rate him very highly and I've worked a few times with Ger Hartmann, because of the link to UL (where he's studying for a Higher Diploma).
"He was giving me good news about Sean Óg Ó'hAilpín, he got back after a similar enough injury. I read a bit in his (Ó'hAilpín's) book, his few chapters on that. Luckily enough, Conor knows Ger and they're working together."
For now, he's in capable hands. What the future holds, time will tell.