Tom Caines charged head-on into the Michigan fullback last September, barring him from the end zone. It was a play a linebacker dreams of making, and Caines left the field in triumph. But in a game three weeks later, after being hit so hard that his spleen ruptured, Caines left in an ambulance
"That's part of the game, good times and bad," Caines reasoned last week during spring football practice at California State University, Long Beach.
Caines, who had his spleen removed hours after the 49ers-New Mexico State game Oct. 17, is playing as hard as ever.
"He hasn't missed a day (of practice)," said defensive coordinator Ken Visser. "I have tremendous admiration for his courage. If there had been a drop-off in his play I'd have noticed it by now. We're hitting the tar out of him."
Caines' teammates, who held him in high regard even before he made his comeback, elected him captain.
Equipped with a desire to play pro football that is as strong as as his 6-foot-3, 220-pound body, Caines has shown no trepidation at returning to the violent world he loves. His jersey soiled, his hair long and shaggy, his face unshaven and his blue eyes focused on ball carriers, he immerses himself in the workouts.
"If he was in England, he'd be playing rugby," Visser said of Caines, who snaps on punts besides playing inside linebacker. "He's not intimidated by anyone or any place."
The 22-year-old junior, who came to Long Beach via Damien High School in La Verne and Taft Junior College, was having a great 1987 season. He had 73 tackles, including 14 at Michigan before 101,000 people, with a couple tackles on a goal-line stand.
And then it ended abruptly in the seventh game.
Visser puts a reel entitled "Kicking Game/New Mexico State" on the projector in his office. The punt play on which Caines was hurt happened late in the 33-6 Long Beach victory.
The film is black and white, gray and grainy, incapable of capturing the flavor of a golden football Saturday afternoon. The players seem like little mechanical men in a toy football game. There are no sounds of fans cheering, only the projector's incessant whir. But the game's nuts and bolts are starkly revealed: great plays and botched ones, to which credit and blame can be given with certainty after leisurely scrutiny.
"Here it comes," Visser said.
The movie shows Caines, No. 1 in a dark jersey, snapping the ball and heading straight down the Veterans Stadium field at full speed in search of the punt returner.
Unseen by Caines, a New Mexico State player approaches from the left and smashes into Caines. The awful sound of impact can only be imagined. Caines hits the ground at the 27 yard line, bounces a few yards, then immediately gets up and runs off the field.
"He knows that guy (tackler) is going to celebrate if he doesn't get up," Visser says, rerunning the play.
Visser said the blind-side block verged on being illegal, but Caines said: "It wasn't a cheap shot. If I was in his spot, I'd have hit me too."
Visser remembered that he thought, "Oh, good, he's getting up; way to get up, babe, way to get up."
Caines said: "I wasn't sure what had happened. I thought the wind was knocked out of me. Halfway off the field the pain hit me."
When the spleen, which is located below the left rib cage and acts as a blood reservoir, breaks, death can result, Dr. Robert Austin said last week. The 49ers' physician said there are a "fair amount" of spleen ruptures in football.
When Caines reached the sidelines, his blood pressure was low and his pulse rapid, Austin recalled. "The possibility of a ruptured spleen was very high," Austin said.
As an ambulance edged toward Caines through the postgame congestion of players, fans and band members, Caines lay on a bench. His face was pale. Teammates periodically reassured him.
As he rode toward Long Beach Community Hospital, with his mother at his side and the siren on, Caines was still trying to imagine what was wrong. "I had cracked ribs before, but it didn't feel like them," he said.
On the way into the operating room, Caines said he joked with the doctors to "hurry up because I only have four games left in the season."
He quit joking when his arms were strapped on the operating table. "Then I told them I wanted to be unconscious because I can't deal with being strapped down," Caines said. "I like to be able to move around. I roam the field, get rid of blockers, don't let people tie me up."
When Caines woke up late that night, his parents assured him everything was OK.
Before leaving the hospital the following Friday, Caines asked the surgeon if there was a chance he could play football again.
"He said I could play in three months," Caines said. "But he said that mentally it would be up to me."
Mentally, it was no problem.
"I'd much rather have had (a ruptured spleen) than a knee injury," Caines said. "The spleen's gone, I can't hurt it again."
When Caines lined up for his first play this spring, he said he was not concerned with getting hurt but was just "trying to remember what defense we were in."
For the last 2 1/2 years, Caines said he has done something everyday to make himself better, stronger and faster, to get a chance to play in the National Football League.
"There is no off-season if you want to play on Sunday," he said.
Although Caines plays football with an animalistic zeal, he conducts himself civilly when not in uniform. "I see myself as an aggressive football player on the field and a nice polite gentleman off the field," he said.
In light of what happened to him, Caines has one fervent wish:
"I'd like to be known as a great linebacker, not as the linebacker who lost his spleen."