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A COMPLETE PLAYER : Rawlings Has Place in Football Despite Having One Arm

November 13, 1987|MITCH POLIN | Times Staff Writer

For as long as he has played football, defensive tackle Nate Rawlings of Azusa Pacific University has endured the stares of startled opponents across the line.

Along the way he has contended with countless people who have doubted his ability to play football. Slowly but surely, he is starting to make believers out of them.

Even Azusa Pacific Coach Jim Milhon admits he was wary of Rawlings' ability at first. But he quickly changed his feelings after watching Rawlings play on special teams as a sophomore.

"We put him on the kickoff team, and he would literally forfeit his body," Milhon recalled. "If there was a pileup, he would usually be in the middle of it. He was just one very aggressive football player."

The 23-year-old senior is a team leader with 33 tackles, 4 1/2 quarterback sacks and a fumble recovery. Those are ordinary statistics by most standards but not when you consider that Rawlings has only one arm.

Rawlings lost his left arm and shoulder because of cancer when he was 9 but hasn't allowed it to handicap his life style or football career.

Rawlings said there are times as a football player when he can use it as a benefit.

"It's fun to look at (opponents) for the first time and notice the look in their eyes," he said. "It seems like they're tentative about hitting me, so I use that to my advantage. I try to knock them down."

Rawlings approaches the rest of his life with that aggressive attitude, too. He rides motorcycles, surfs, skis and scuba dives.

"Most football players are active, and that's the way I am," he said. "I want to try sky diving and hang gliding. There are a lot of things I want to do."

For the moment, though, Rawlings is concentrating on football.

"He's a kid with a disability but he can play ," Milhon said. "I won't say he's an All-American, but the wonder of it all is that he can play and play well. We're not giving him a thing. He plays because he deserves to play.

"He's done all the things that an athlete would do and he's done it with one arm."

Milhon is not sure that Rawlings would have such motivation if the circumstances were different.

"If Nate had two arms, I'm not sure that he would even play football," Milhon said. "When they took that arm, that changed Nate Rawlings a great deal.

"But I didn't know Nathan before that. I only know him now. One thing that happened somewhere in the picture was the desire inside to say, 'I want to do this.' "

Perhaps the seeds of motivation grew when Rawlings was a child, living in the farming town of Eskdale, Utah.

He was playing with friends one day. "I fell down and my arm broke," he said. The doctors thought that was a little unusual so they took a bone test and it came out that I had cancer.

"They removed everything to do with the arm. They removed the arm, shoulder, clavicle--everything but the ribs," Rawlings said.

It was the second experience with cancer for the Rawlings family. Three years earlier, Nate's mother, Wanda, had died of cancer.

This time the cancer had been stopped but Rawlings was left with extensive rehabilitation. Tasks that were once easy became painfully difficult.

"The little things were the hardest," he said. "Just adjusting your buttons on your shirt or your 501s and tying your shoes were difficult. I had my brother tie my shoes at first but after a while he got tired of doing it so he found a way to show me how to do it myself."

Except for occasional stares from people in stores, Rawlings said people did not treat him unkindly or differently after the operation.

"People didn't go out and say, 'Look at Nate. He's got only one arm.' They treated me just like anybody else."

Rawlings had liked to play pick-up football games with friends before the operation, so he was not hesitant to join in after the setback. He was often the last player picked, but he was happy to be playing with his brothers and friends.

While he was living in Utah, Rawlings said, all of the games were unorganized. That changed when Rawlings' family moved to Tempe, Ariz., when he was about 12.

"When I moved to Arizona, it suddenly became different," he said. "I was going to the seventh grade when (older brother) Dan was a freshman in high school and my dad bought us a football and that helped my eye-hand coordination."

Rawlings said it was mostly Dan, a star player at Marcos de Miza High in Tempe, who inspired him to play football.

"When I was growing up, I followed him around everywhere," Nate said. "I really idolized him and because he played, I wanted to play. Because we just moved there (to Tempe) I didn't know anybody, so we spent a lot of time tossing the football."

When Rawlings began high school, he didn't play football at first. He joined the team as a junior and spent his first season on the junior varsity. He moved up to the varsity as a senior. "I started a few games and I played a lot of positions (including fullback), but I wasn't a great player," he said.

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