FULLERTON — Cal State Fullerton linebacker Clarence Siler has shown a remarkable ability to overcome physical problems this year.
In August, just 3 1/2 months after suffering gunshot wounds to the shoulder and wrist, Siler was training with the football team. When he injured his ankle against Fresno State Sept. 29, doctors predicted Siler would miss three or four games. He missed two.
"I'm a pretty quick healer," he said.
Siler wishes he could also heal his spirit. It certainly has been put to the test this season, a 1-9 misadventure for the Titans, and Siler isn't exactly passing this emotional exam with flying colors.
"After games, sometimes I can't even look the coaches in the eye," said Siler, a 6-foot-4, 235-pound senior. "They expect a lot out of me, and I feel I've let them and the team down."
It has been rough, and Siler is taking it hard--perhaps too hard. He hasn't had the season he had in 1989--when he was an honorable mention All-Big West Conference selection--but few Titans have played well defensively.
Fullerton has allowed an average of 39.7 points and 503.9 yards a game. The defense has been besieged by injuries and enters Saturday's homecoming game against Utah State without three starting linemen and a starting linebacker. Surely, one man cannot be blamed.
But Siler feels largely responsible. "When you're getting beat like we are, there's always something you could have done," said Siler, who ranks ninth on the team in tackles with 33. "I could have played a lot better."
Injuries have contributed to Siler's decline. After missing two games because of the ankle injury, Siler returned Oct. 20 at Hawaii. But he reinjured the ankle on the second play and sat out the rest of the game, then played sparingly the following week against Cal State Long Beach.
Siler, whose sack against San Jose State on Saturday was his first since the season opener, says he feels pretty healthy going into Fullerton's final two games. But that might not be enough to convince NFL scouts that he is capable of playing professionally.
"Right now, I get the idea that people don't think I'm at full speed," Siler said. "And I don't think I've played well enough to attract the interest of scouts. I felt a lot better about the NFL going into this season than I do now."
To go unselected in next year's NFL draft would be devastating for Siler, who has been hoping to use money from a pro contract to buy a house for his mother, preferably far away from the Daytona Beach, Fla., projects where she raised her family.
During his childhood years, Siler said, his father was usually in prison and his mother was on and off welfare. Siler was raised amid the crime and violence of the Halifax Projects, one of the worst in Daytona Beach.
Siler said playing sports kept him out of trouble, and he realized in high school that athletics were a way out. An All-Central Florida tight end-linebacker in high school, Siler went to Sacramento City College on the advice of a family friend.
After two seasons at Sacramento, one of them cut short by a shoulder injury, Siler received a scholarship to Fullerton, where he quickly earned a starting position. And he basked in an environment that seemed insulated from the problems of his upbringing.
That's what made the incident last April so ironic. Siler was shot twice by an off-duty police officer during an altercation outside a Fullerton nightclub.
"I thought I had left all that behind," Siler said. "When I got here, I told my mother and my friends that I loved it, that I wanted to play for the Rams or Raiders. I was bragging a lot about California, how it was a safe place to live, and then, wham , this happens. It ticked me off."
Several Fullerton football players, including Siler, were arrested, and Siler eventually pleaded no-contest to misdemeanor assault charges. He was sentenced to three years' probation.
Siler claims he did not instigate or take part in the altercation, that he was an innocent victim. He says he made his plea to avoid the publicity and pressure of a trial.
The bullet that remains lodged near Siler's rib has become a source of humor for teammates and coaches. When Siler returned to practice and showed no signs of being slowed by the injury, Coach Gene Murphy joked that Siler's only problem would be getting through airport metal detectors.
But there was no laughter in Siler's hospital room after the shooting. "I was more scared than hurt," he said. "I didn't want to die."
In the days after the shooting, most of Siler's thoughts were about his 4-year-old son, Brandon, who lives in Florida.
"I thought I wouldn't be able to see him grow up, and I felt bad that he wouldn't have a father," Siler said.
Once Siler's condition improved, he never doubted that he would return to football.
"I told Murphy when I was in the hospital that I'd be back," Siler said. "I don't know if he believed me, because I had tubes in my nose, in my side, everywhere. But I'm a hard worker, and I knew I'd work hard to come back."
It will take more work for Siler to rebound from this disappointing season and move on to the pros.
"Statistically, I haven't had a very good season," Siler said. "But hopefully, my ability will get me over the hump."