After two-year hiatus, Autry to start for Eagles

PHILADELPHIA — Darnell Autry is getting the starring role of a lifetime. It’s just not coming in Hollywood.

Autry, who two years ago retired from football to pursue acting, last week played his first game since 1997. Now, he’s the starting halfback for the Philadelphia Eagles.

“I’m overwhelmed with confidence,” Autry said. “I’ve been to hell and back. It can go nowhere but up for me.”

Autry gets his chance because the Eagles lost Duce Staley for the season. Staley, a 1,000-yard rusher the last two years, had surgery Tuesday to repair an injured right foot.

Staley has been placed on injured reserve, and Philadelphia signed Amp Lee to fill the roster spot. But Lee hasn’t played in eight months and has never been a feature back during his eight-year career.

“He was the best available for this situation,” coach Andy Reid said of Autry. “He’s been in this offense before. He understands the numbers scheme and most of the routes are familiar by term to him.”

Lee, who played in the West Coast offense with San Francisco and Minnesota, earned a Super Bowl ring playing for the St. Louis Rams last season.

Meanwhile, Autry earned good tips busing tables at a Planet Hollywood while waiting for his big break. It never came.

The former Tempe High School and Northwestern star originally joined the Eagles in Sept. 1998 after being cut by the Chicago Bears. He was deactivated for the first four games of the season, then retired to seek an acting career.

Autry returned to the Eagles last February, and made the team after a solid preseason in which he averaged 7 yards a carry (8 rushes for 56 yards).

“Darnell is a hard, north-south runner,” quarterback Donovan McNabb said. “He’s proved that. The preseason solidified what he’s capable of doing.”

Autry gained eight yards on his first run, but finished with 15 yards on seven carries in Sunday’s 17-14 loss to Washington. He was concerned the outing might cost him a job. Instead, Reid wants to give him more carries.

“I always feel like I’m one broken tackle away from a long run, or one catch away from doing some big things,” Autry said. “You’re only going to get so many carries, and I have to make something happen. If we can run the ball, we can throw the ball.”

Autry was a Heisman Trophy finalist as a sophomore at Northwestern. He left school early, and the Bears selected him in the fourth round of the 1997 draft.

But after a rookie season in which he ran 112 times for 319 yards, Autry was unemployed.

“I didn’t know if I’d get another chance,” he said. “I was hoping somewhere down the line I’d get a shot, but you never know.”

Even though he’s starting against Arizona this week, Autry probably won’t get 20 carries. Reid plans to use Lee, Brian Mitchell and fullbacks Stanley Pritchett and Cecil Martin to revive the running game.

“We’re going to mix-and-match,” Reid said. “I was doing that a little even with Duce in there.”

Autry is ready for whatever might happen. He’s been through enough frustrations.

“Patience, patience, patience is the key,” Autry said. “Patience and focus and playing within yourself is the most important thing.”