On Stanford's first day of practice last August, Brad Muster stepped out of the Heisman Trophy picture.
The 6-foot 3-inch, 226-pound Stanford tailback severely sprained his left ankle on a routine play with minimum contact.
Since that unfortunate day, Muster has tried to run on the injured ankle. But he has been able to play in only 11 quarters of eight games.
With the season almost gone, however, Muster is active again and will play against USC Saturday at the Coliseum.
This has not been the senior season that Muster envisioned.
He considered entering the National Football League draft because he was eligible after red-shirting as a freshman in 1983, but decided to return to school to take care of the few units he had left for his degree in economics and to further develop his skills.
And his skills, when he is fit, are enormous.
The Times' Jim Murray has compared Muster favorably to Ernie Nevers, the legendary Stanford fullback of the 1920s.
His coach, Jack Elway, calls him an impact player and marvels at his versatility.
Big backs, such as Muster, are seldom skilled as both a runner and a receiver. Muster is.
In 1986, he became only the fifth player in college football history to rush for more than 1,000 yards--1,053--and catch 50 or more passes--61--in a season.
He caught 78 passes in 1985 for a Pacific 10 season record, despite missing two games and parts of three others with a chest injury.
He is second on Stanford's all-time rushing list with 2,622 yards, and a 4.2-yards-a-carry average. He has scored 28 touchdowns but only 3 this season.
Muster is deceptively fast. Although he has 4.5-second speed in a 40-yard dash, he doesn't seem to be moving that quickly. Then, suddenly, he has turned the corner.
"I've never seen a guy his size run with so much fluidity," said Jim Walsh, who coaches Stanford's running backs.
Muster's father, Bob, football coach at San Rafael High School in Marin County, knew long ago that his son had some special qualities as a runner.
"He always seemed to have that extra step," Bob Muster said. "He'd seem to maybe want it a little bit more. He'd play with intensity and he paid attention to detail."
Pro scouts say that Muster's long-striding running style could be compared to former Washington Redskins All-Pro John Riggins'.
The ankle injury, though, has frustrated Muster this season.
"I feel better each week," he said. "The ankle is the best it has been this year, but it's still not 100%.
"I hurt it the first day in practice, running a sweep to the right side in a no-pads drill. A blocker stopped right in front of me, and I tried to avoid running up his back, slipped on wet grass and turned my ankle.
"I shouldn't have played against Washington in our opening game. It hurt too much. I was trying to run through tacklers and couldn't do it."
Muster didn't play against Colorado the following week. Then, he tried to play against San Jose State but could only run straight ahead.
He reinjured the ankle the week before the UCLA game and watched from the sideline as the Bruins routed the Cardinal, 49-0. He missed the next two games against Washington State and San Diego State before coming back in the second half against Oregon to score the winning touchdown with 39 seconds left.
Muster was in the starting lineup for only the third time this season against Arizona last Saturday. He gained 97 yards in 18 carries but caught only 1 pass for 5 yards as Stanford lost, 23-13, ending a three-game winning streak.
With a 3-5 record, Stanford is now trying to salvage the season, although it may be too late.
As for Muster, he said he's not dwelling on the bad luck that eliminated him from Heisman consideration even before the season began.
"It's flattering to get nominated on a national level, to have that kind of attention," he said. "But that's not the reason I came back to play my senior year here. I wanted to improve as a football player, but that really hasn't happened."
Muster is still a highly regarded pro prospect, perhaps even a first-round selection. His accomplishments in 1986 haven't been forgotten.
There was that memorable game against UCLA at the Rose Bowl in which he almost singlehandedly beat the Bruins in a nationally televised game won by the Cardinal, 28-23.
Muster gained 183 yards, 74 on one run, in a school-record 38 carries. He also caught 4 passes for 28 yards and scored 2 touchdowns.
"That was a lot of fun," said Muster, when reminded of the UCLA game. "But that's in the past. I can't dwell on it now. In later years, I think it will put a smile on my face, but right now I'm disappointed how this season is going. We want to end this thing on a positive note."
And nothing could be more positive than beating the Trojans, who have not seen the best of Muster.