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Rod Foster's Ordeal in the Arizona Desert : Jeep Accident Leaves Him With Broken Leg and Endangers His Career

March 25, 1986|GRAHAME L. JONES | Times Staff Writer

On the map, the road to Castle Hot Springs is little more than an L-shaped gray line tying Lake Pleasant to Morristown, 37 miles distant. It is unpaved, uninteresting and, suddenly, under scrutiny.

For it was on that road at dusk on a warm Arizona spring evening that Rod Foster met the future.

The Phoenix Suns' guard and two teammates, Mike Sanders and Ed Pinckney, had spent Sunday afternoon and early evening bouncing around on the desert trails that draw off-roaders to the foothills of the Bradshaw Mountains.

Now, the three were heading home to Phoenix, joking and laughing as Foster's Jeep churned up the desert dust, flashing past the creosote bushes and cacti that line the roadway.

Suddenly, just after cresting a hill, Foster, 25, felt something go wrong.

"We were going down a pretty steep hill and I felt my Jeep starting to slide sideways," Foster said Monday night from his room at Phoenix General Hospital. "I hit the brake and the Jeep flipped over on one side."

All three players were strapped into their seats, but Sanders knew right away that his former UCLA teammate was in trouble. Even before the dust and the glass from the Jeep's shattered windshield had settled, he could see the pain in Foster's eyes.

"He'd stuck his leg out like he was on a bike," Sanders said Monday afternoon. "If he'd kept his leg in, he would have been OK. The Jeep fell on him, he had to pull himself out from underneath it. He was bleeding bad."

Sanders and Pinckney were shaken, but they were not hurt. They did have a problem, though: How to get Foster to a doctor as quickly as possible. It was growing dark and they were at least six miles from the nearest ranch. No one else was around.

First, however, they had to stop the bleeding. Propping Foster up against the Jeep, Sanders and Pickney helped him tie a couple of bungee cords around his left leg to act as a emergency tourniquet. Then Sanders set off on foot back the way they'd come, hoping to find a ranch house where he could use the phone.

Foster, meanwhile, reached back into the Jeep and, with help from Pinckney, tried to raise someone on the vehicle's CB radio. It was no use, either they were in too remote an area or no one was listening on the frequencies they tried.

"I wasn't in a great deal of pain," Foster said Monday night, "but there was a lot of blood."

Roughly 20 minutes after the accident, their luck changed. A fisherman heading back from Lake Pleasant found them and helped them into his pickup truck. They located Sanders three or four miles down the road, then doubled back to the Maricopa County ranger station at the lake.

There, rangers helped set the leg in a makeshift splint while awaiting an ambulance from Phoenix. It was not until 9:45 p.m., almost three hours after the accident, that Foster received proper medical treatment, and it was almost four hours before he finally reached the hospital.

Foster went into the operating room at 1:30 a.m. and did not emerge for three hours. His leg had been so badly damaged, broken in two places three inches above the ankle, that doctors described the injury as "possibly career-ending," and said further surgery might be required.

It will be four to six months before the cast on Foster's leg can be removed, according to the Suns' team physician, Dr. Paul Steingard.

"At worst, his career is over," Steingard said Monday afternoon. "At best, he won't be able to pick up a basketball for at least six months."

Steingard and his associate, Dr. Richard Emerson, both from the Center for Sports Medicine and Orthopedics in Phoenix, performed the three-hour operation.

"He suffered a major severe open fracture of the left tibia and left fibula," Steingard said, describing it as a "Joe Theismann-type injury" in reference to the Washington Redskin quarterback who broke his leg in a game against the New York Giants last season.

"It's been a tough year for Rod," Steingard said of Foster, who was sidelined for more than a week last month after he sprained his left ankle and damaged his left knee in a fall during Phoenix's 126-100 home loss to the Lakers Feb. 12 at Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

In all, Foster has missed 18 games because of ankle, knee and hamstring injuries this season. He has played in 48 games, and is averaging 4.2 points and 2.5 assists per game.

Steingard said the former prep All-American from St. Thomas Aquinas High School in New Britain, Conn., had been made aware of the seriousness of the injury. The doctor was frank in his assessment of Foster's chances of ever playing in the NBA again.

"We're optimistic, but we're being realistic, too," he said. "We're being totally up-front with Rod. It's a severe injury and it could end his career."

Foster, a second-round pick in the 1983 NBA draft, signed a three-year contract with the Suns that expires at the end of this season. He is keeping a positive outlook.

"I think so," he replied when asked if he thought he'd be able to play again. "I think I'll be able to do it."

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