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Valley / Ventura County Sports

Snap Decision : Finally Pain Free, Alcala Makes Move to Center for Northridge

September 26, 1998|FERNANDO DOMINGUEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTHRIDGE — Every day, the pain would pierce Julio Alcala's back, but he tried to pay it no mind.

Sometimes it shot down his left leg, forcing him to take baby steps or feel the wrath of roiled nerves.

The cool-down periods after football practice or games at Cal State Northridge often were torture for Alcala, an offensive lineman.

"It got to the point where sitting in class was like a full day of practices, especially with the little chairs they have [in the classrooms]," Alcala said.

Not anymore.

Alcala, 6 feet 4 and 285 pounds, is playing without the agony after undergoing surgery in May for a herniated disk.

"I had total relief right after the surgery," Alcala said.

The Matadors (1-1, 1-0 in Big Sky Conference play), who host Eastern Washington (0-2, 0-1) at 3 today at North Campus Stadium, were relieved to see Alcala's quick recovery.

Academic ineligibility left Northridge's offensive line vulnerable for the opener at Boise State on Sept. 5, with two freshmen tending to the right side, the regular left tackle working at left guard and a tight end filling in at left tackle.

Alcala, a junior projected during spring practice to start at right guard, was not expecting to play much. But the circumstances prompted Northridge coaches to toss Alcala into the fracas, although only sparingly.

"I had no contact practices or anything since spring, so it was weird," Alcala said.

"I couldn't stand being out. I just wanted to be in the mix."

He's in the middle of it now.

Alcala last week replaced center Beau Cherry, who suffered strained knee ligaments in Northridge's 26-13 loss to Boise State, and helped the Matadors upset Northern Arizona, 41-10.

"It's been a tremendous boost in light of the losses we've had [on the offensive line]," said Aron Gideon, Northridge's line coach. "I was thinking way back that Julio might be able to play center for us because he snaps the ball as well as any center we've had.

"He's been very unselfish moving from position to position."

Alcala played right tackle for the Matadors last season after transferring from Colorado State, where he spent the previous two years, the first as a redshirt. He joined the Rams after a sparkling career at Montgomery High in San Diego.

His back problems, Alcala said, developed over the years and became nearly unbearable last year.

"It started hurting a lot around the third game of the season and it got really bad toward the end," Alcala said. "It was especially bad in cold places like Montana and Montana State. My [left] leg froze up on me at Eastern Washington, when we were walking to the locker room at halftime."

Alcala said doctors initially believed he had a sprained lower back. They later discovered the herniated disk and removed about 50% of it, warning about returning to football too soon, or at all.

But Alcala was not about to quit the game, immersing himself instead in an aggressive rehabilitation program that considerably accelerated his recovery.

"It was good that I had my family and my friends and the coaches to back me up," Alcala said. "I thought I was done forever."

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