It's a long way to the starting lineup when you're on the operating table at Centinela Hospital Medical Center and the orthopedic surgeon is talking in soft tones and looking at your knee X-ray as if it resembles a plate of linguine:
As you know, Mark Jerue, you parted company with your left posterior cruciate ligament the last time you joined us in surgery. This time, it looks like the big one, the anterior cruciate, or the medial collateral. Maybe both. Gee, a daily double.
"That would have meant three out of four ligaments gone," Jerue recalled.
In other words, time to check your National Football League severance plan because you may not have a ligament left to stand on. Also, see if your state disability insurance covers this on-the-job accident: Nov. 15, 1987, Ram linebacker's left knee pinned in major pileup of Rams and St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. Cause of accident still under investigation at NFL Films.
Jerue crossed his fingers before the anesthesia kicked in last November. Dr. Clarence Shields, Ram surgeon, crossed his scalpels.
It was as simple as this: After surgery, Jerue opens his eyes as a linebacker or the next applicant at real estate school.
"I had to be realistic," Jerue said.
When Jerue awoke, his girlfriend was at his bedside, smiling. Instant diagnosis. He had torn only the medial collateral, not the anterior, known in the game as the torn ligament of football death.
"The medial collateral is no big deal at all," Jerue said.
No big deal at all, just six months of intense physical rehabilitation at Rams Park. That's intense as in four hours a day, six days a week.
The comeback was made easier when Jerue got word around February that the Rams were restructuring their defense and creating a new position just for him. Repairs were in order, seeing how the Rams dropped from fifth overall in 1986 to 21st last year.
Because the Rams are overloaded with good linebackers and running on empty at defensive line, they devised a scheme to get five linebackers on the field.
"The defense is based on putting as many players who should get more snaps on the field at once," is the way defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur put it.
On most first and second down situations, the Rams will go with just two defensive tackles, four linebackers and Mark Jerue lined up over the center.
Jerue played nose tackle at the University of Washington, but his responsibilities here are different. Jerue will be more of a rover, even dropping into pass coverages in some cases.
Jerue's new position just loosens up the logjam at inside linebacker, where had the change not been made, he would have been competing with Jim Collins, Carl Ekern, Larry Kelm and others for two starting positions.
In some instances, he still will be fighting for that job. Shurmur insists the new alignment is just a variation of the old Ram defense, not an overhaul.
It's all fine with Jerue, who saw his world turn upside down last season after a long, hard, climb to the top.
Jerue, entering his sixth season, made his name as a special teams player with the Rams. For years, he was a man waiting for his break.
It came in 1986, when a nerve injury knocked Collins out for the season. Jerue, hardly missing a beat, stepped in and finished the season with 109 tackles, second best on the team.
When Collins returned last year, it created a three-way fight at linebacker with Ekern and Jerue, a fight Jerue might have won had he stayed healthy.
It wasn't to be. Jerue went down twice last season, the first time when his left knee buckled against the Seattle Seahawks in the exhibition season. Arthroscopic surgery forced Jerue out of the season opener, snapping a streak of 64 consecutive games played.
Jerue's rehabilitation fell further behind during the NFL strike, when he could no longer work out at Rams Park. Jerue, of course, was outside the gates working out a picket sign.
When the strike ended, Jerue played just four games before going down again against the Cardinals in St. Louis.
"Maybe I tried to come back too fast," he said. "Maybe I could have been smarter. Maybe I should have been wearing a knee brace when I came back."
There are plenty of maybes in the life of a football player. Jerue's hoping maybe this is his year.
"When that (new) defense came along," he said, "and they started telling me about it, it was really uplifting."
Not surprisingly, the Rams had a few no-shows when veterans were due to report Thursday night. The holdouts are tight end Greg Baty, defensive linemen Shawn Miller, Greg Meisner and Doug Reed, cornerback Mickey Sutton and guard Tom Newberry. . . . Also missing is third-round pick Mike Piel. The Rams list 98 players on their roster and have 91 in camp.