WASHINGTON — It is a distant memory now for Mel Kaufman, the moment when his Achilles' tendon snapped on a sunny day at RFK Stadium 10 months ago. There was no reason for it to happen; no one ran into him, no one hit him illegally, no one even touched him. But there he was, the Washington Redskins' left linebacker, stumbling forward toward the Los Angeles Raiders' offensive line during a play in the last minute of the game.
"I took three or four steps, and my right foot felt like it was stepping into a hole," Kaufman said last week at Redskin Park. "I tried to push off on it, and it was a terrible feeling. There was nothing there."
Kaufman was helped to the bench, where he sat and watched the final plays of the Redskins' 10-6 victory, their second victory of the season. He listened to doctors and trainers as they cut away the tape and gingerly examined the back of his right ankle. It didn't take long for someone to say words that seemed incredible at the time: "You're out for the season."
To that point, Kaufman was off to an extraordinary start: 26 tackles and three sacks in two games. And then, it was over.
"My heart sank," he remembered. "I felt tears coming down my face. Why did this have to happen now?"
So Kaufman packed the season of his dreams into two games, hobbled off the field and went to the hospital for surgery. For four months, his teammates played without him. They did well, coming within one game of the Super Bowl. But they wondered. Where would they have been with Kaufman, generally regarded as the team's best linebacker?
One day in the locker room, defensive tackle Dave Butz spotted Kaufman on crutches, visiting. Butz pointed at Kaufman's ankle, hidden under a full-length plaster cast.
"That's why we're not going to go to the Super Bowl this season," Butz said.
There are several issues facing the Redskins in training camp this summer. Some, like the return of defensive end Dexter Manley or the emergence of running back Kelvin Bryant, are hot topics. The Redskin linebackers, being regular, shot-and-a-beer kind of guys, usually don't generate a lot of news. This summer is likely to be different.
For one, Kaufman is back without a limp, ready to practice at Dickinson College in August and play at RFK in September, he said. For another, Redskins coaches were not pleased with their linebacking last season and are planning to put veterans Rich Milot, Monte Coleman and, to a lesser degree, Kaufman and Neal Olkewicz, through the fight of their lives.
"I'm sure there are going to be some (personnel) changes," Kaufman said. "I don't know who or what or when they will be made. But just from what I know, it seems to me they want to make some changes this year. But, right now, I can't really be concerned about anybody else except Mel Kaufman. I've got to prove some things to myself."
Kaufman, 29, had missed only two games the previous four seasons before rupturing his right Achilles' tendon Sept. 14. By December, he was lifting leg weights--with the cast still on. He now lifts three days a week and runs three days a week.
"Now, I'm back to doing the same things I did before the injury," he said.
Asked to put a percentage on his condition, he said, "I'm in the 90s. It's hard to say right now. I don't know if I'm 100%. But it feels great. From what I was told, I'm at least a month ahead of schedule."
But actually putting on pads again and playing football is something Kaufman cannot simulate.
"There's a little fear," he said. "Actually, it's more uncertainty. That's what is drawing out the fear in me. I'm confident that everything's going to be fine. I like to think I live my life with a little fear in it. It gives me energy, it gives me the desire to excel. If there's fear there, there's a challenge there."
The Redskins open camp Monday with the first practice for rookies, some first-year players and selected veterans. Kaufman will go to Carlisle, Pa., a week later with the veterans.
There also is the sticky matter of his contract--he doesn't have one. Like 13 other veterans, including quarterback Jay Schroeder, offensive tackle Joe Jacoby and Milot, Kaufman is a free agent. Unsigned players are not allowed to practice at training camp.
But Kaufman is certain he will be in camp this summer, signed and ready to go.
"I almost feel I have to prove I can still play," he said. "First and foremost, I want to prove to myself that I can play. In my mind, if I prove it to myself, it will be good enough for the Redskins."
Larry Peccatiello, Redskins defensive coordinator and linebacker coach, believes Kaufman will be at full strength in Carlisle.
"We think he is fully recovered," he said. "Our only concern is if he has lost a step, but we don't expect that. We are very optimistic. . . . He goes into camp as our starting left linebacker."