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His Faith Is His Medicine : Browns' Vardell Makes Hard Religious Choice Because of Knee Injury

November 09, 1994|BILL PLASCHKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CLEVELAND — When Tommy Vardell was a little boy with a fever or stomach ache, the cure was always the same.

He would crawl onto his mother's lap and together they would lose themselves in prayer until the fever broke.

When he was a young man with a sprained ankle or a broken collarbone, the cure was always the same.

He would find a quiet spot in his room, close his eyes, and once again look to his source of strength.

Somehow, he always found it. In his first 17 years as a celebrated running back, from the Pop Warner League to Stanford to the Cleveland Browns, he missed only three games.

"Turning to God, and leaning on him, has always been my medicine," Vardell said.

Today, in a townhouse outside Cleveland, he is lost in prayer again. Only this time he is facing an injury more devastating, and the stakes are much greater.

Vardell is relying on his unusual faith to recover from reconstructive knee surgery that does not fit into the tenets of his religion.

As the NFL's only acknowledged Christian Scientist, Vardell, 25, had never visited a doctor on his own. He had never taken a prescribed drug, a spoonful of cough syrup or even an aspirin.

When parts of his body were twisted, bruised or even broken, he refused to allow the routine applications of ice, heat or ultrasound stimulation.

When he was hurting, the only prescription he filled was for prayer.

"I simply know there is absolutely nothing that arises that can't be resolved by appealing to God and his laws that govern us," Vardell said in his first in-depth interview about the subject. "From Day One, Christian Science has been my health-care system."

Since the afternoon of Oct. 2, Vardell has used that system more than ever.

On the third play of a game against the New York Jets, Vardell reached back to catch a short pass from quarterback Vinny Testaverde. He was hit by Jet safety Brian Washington. Vardell's left knee twisted into Cleveland Stadium's wet grass.

The minute Vardell hit the ground, he began praying.

He was still praying several hours later when he was told the knee required surgery if he hoped to continue playing football.

It was the sort of procedure he had agreed to undergo, if necessary, before the Browns made him the ninth overall pick in the 1992 draft.

He told the Browns he would honor his word and have the operation.

But he also asked them if he could have a few days to work it out himself. The doctors wanted to operate immediately.

He surprised them by declining pain medication during the 36 hours before the operation. One of the attending nurses even commented that he couldn't believe Vardell was in no pain.

He also surprised doctors by using no more than one day's worth of pain medication after returning home, two days after the surgery.

A month later, Vardell is smiling and cheerful as he hobbles around his townhouse, wearing a brace that has already replaced a cast.

He does not have the drugged-out look some people have after a major operation. He has not gained weight, even though he has been unable to walk.

"Right now, I'm working with the trainers in their rehabilitation, but I'm getting some wonderful prayerful work done," he said. "It's not like I have this unbelievable faith that makes God's laws apply to me. His love for us and His healthy government of us applies to everybody, whether they are aware of it or not."

*

The oft-repeated statement by NFL insiders who know of Vardell's beliefs is not really a statement, but an amazed question.

How does he do it?

How does one of the 150,000 members of the Church of Christ, Scientist, survive in professional football?

"His beliefs and pro football, they seem so opposite," said Bill Tessendorf, the Browns' trainer.

Football players routinely spend as much time in the training room as on the field, even when they are not injured.

Many need pain pills or anti-inflammatory medicine merely to recover from a weekend game. Some take so much medication to help them survive a practice week, they could qualify as pharmacists.

There are cortisone shots, electro-stimulation therapy, muscle relaxers, the cupful of pills delivered to your hotel room the night before an important road game.

Then there is Vardell.

"I am really surprised he has gone this far while being able to stick to his beliefs," said Standley Scott, veteran Stanford trainer. "I really respect his values."

Scott did not know of Vardell's religion when the running back signed with Stanford as an All-San Diego County running back at Granite Hills High.

When Vardell began politely refusing customary pills and routine treatments, Scott quickly figured it out.

"We wouldn't waive medical clearance," Scott said. "He had to be safe to play every week. But other than that, Coach (Dennis) Green ordered us to give him a lot of latitude."

When X-rays indicated a broken foot in his freshman year, Vardell politely turned down pain medication. Five years later, a more thorough predraft exam showed that there had never been a break.

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