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Unable to Take His Best Shot

Reaction to pain-killer brought premature end to Polamalu's season, and he's still hurting.

January 18, 2003|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

USC quarterback Carson Palmer and running backs Justin Fargas and Malaefou MacKenzie spent the last week in Mobile, Ala., practicing under the watchful eye of NFL scouts, coaches and personnel directors in preparation for today's Senior Bowl All-Star game.

Troy Polamalu, USC's two-time All-American safety, did not.

Polamalu regretfully declined his invitation to the NFL showcase because he is still rehabilitating from hamstring and ankle injuries that forced him to miss all or part of three games, among them the Trojans' 38-17 romp over Iowa in the Orange Bowl.

"I wanted to go to the Senior Bowl but it wouldn't have been beneficial because I wouldn't have been [able to perform]," Polamalu said. "I need a chance to heal up."

Polamalu, projected to be chosen in the first few rounds of the NFL draft, hopes to participate in next month's NFL combine in Indianapolis. In the meantime, he works out, attends classes at USC and continues to work through his disappointment after an adverse reaction to a pain-killing injection for a hamstring injury knocked him out of the starting lineup for the Orange Bowl.

Polamalu was on the field for only two plays, an Iowa extra-point attempt in the first quarter and a pass play in the fourth. After the game, he was inconsolable and would not talk about what had happened.

But earlier this week, he spoke about it at length.

"I wish I was a bigger part of the victory -- the only thing that keeps my head on straight was the season we had," he said. "I was part of the team and part of the winning."

Pain-killing injections are commonplace in the NFL. Last year, St. Louis Ram cornerback Dexter McCleon told the New York Times, "If it wasn't for these shots, a lot of guys -- I mean hundreds of guys -- wouldn't be able to play every week. I would say half the teams in football wouldn't have enough guys to play on Sunday, if it wasn't for those needles."

The injections also are part of the college game, but less so than at the professional level.

"We don't do anything that is going to put a guy at risk," USC Coach Pete Carroll said Friday. "That is determined by the experience of the doctors."

Polamalu, 21, said he was not pressured by coaches, teammates or team medical personnel to get the shot, which was administered by a team doctor.

"It's your own decision," he said. "Nobody was trying to persuade me to do it."

Polamalu said the shot was only the second of his college career. He said he'd received one three months earlier, with no discernible side effects, after suffering a high ankle sprain in a game against Washington State.

Polamalu missed most of the Washington State game and the next week's game against California, but started the rest of the regular season and finished second on the team with 68 tackles.

The hamstring problem, which lingered throughout the season, became more acute during bowl week preparations. Three days before the game, Polamalu missed part of a practice while receiving treatment.

During the pregame warmup, the condition persisted. The Trojans returned to their locker room at Pro Player Stadium and Polamalu requested the shot.

"I knew I had a special part in the game plan and I wanted to be as healthy as I could be," he said.

After the injection was administered, Polamalu sat down in front of his locker for about 10 minutes. When he got up and started walking, his leg felt completely numb. Polamalu said the doctor had inadvertently hit a nerve with the shot.

"It's the same thing that happened to Jerome Bettis," Polamalu said.

Bettis, the Pittsburgh Steelers' star running back, missed a playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens last season when a team doctor hit a nerve while administering a pain-killing injection for a groin injury.

"I had heard about it happening, but I never thought it would happen to me in that situation," Polamalu said. "I shouldn't have taken the shot."

After Iowa had returned the opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown, Polamalu hobbled onto the field for the extra-point attempt.

"I couldn't feel my leg at all," he said. "When I was running, my knees would lock. When I was braking, my ankles would roll over."

Redshirt sophomore Jason Leach took Polamalu's place in the lineup and played well, recovering a fumble and intercepting a pass. Thirty seconds before Leach's interception, Polamalu entered the game for one snap.

"I had to get in for a play," he said.

It proved to be the final one of his USC career.

"I said I would never take a shot until my senior year and would especially take one if it's the last game because, to me, there is no tomorrow," Polamalu said. "I regret that decision."

Polamalu, however, said he is optimistic about his future. He is within 16 units of graduating and is looking forward to playing in the NFL. He will watch the Senior Bowl on television today.

"It would be great to be there with Carson, Justin and Malaefou, but the Lord works in mysterious ways," he said. "You have to move on, and that's what I'm trying to do."

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