Former UCLA defensive tackle Brian Price, left, takes part in a practice… (Brian Blanco / Associated…)
Brian Price, once a wrecking ball on UCLA's defensive line, has beaten long odds to return to the NFL after two off-season surgeries aimed at keeping his hamstrings attached to his pelvis, rather than breaking loose and coiling down the backs of his thighs.
For Price, who will start at defensive tackle Sunday for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, his excruciating recovery was a 10-step process.
Meaning just two months ago, he could run only 10 steps.
"You have these doubts in your head at times," said Price, a second-round pick of the Buccaneers in 2010 who, because of his congenitally malformed pelvis, spent the last half of his rookie season on injured reserve. "You're thinking, 'Am I going to be able to play the same? Am I going to be able to play football again?' "
There was good reason for those questions. Price underwent two rare and radical surgeries — one on each side of his pelvis — to correct his problem. Those involved using two metal screws per side to anchor a large piece of bone back to the pelvis. That piece of bone, on each side, is where the hamstrings attach.
According to Buccaneers trainer Todd Toriscelli, whereas the two pieces of the pelvis normally fuse into a single bone in adults, the halves of Price's pelvis were connected by a more breakable cartilage. The player's hamstrings — tight as piano wire — were progressively pulling apart his pelvis.
The Buccaneers were alerted to the problem in Price's first minicamp, when he was injured during a drill in which the defensive linemen had to pick up a tennis ball while running, an exercise that reminds them to stay low to the ground.
An MRI exam showed that not only had Price broken his pelvis on one side, but there also were signs of the same problem on the other side.
"That happens to a small percentage of the population," Toriscelli said. "But in professional football it hadn't been seen where someone actually had that and went on to injure it."
That Price was injured picking up a tennis ball is bizarre considering he was a 300-pound nightmare for UCLA opponents, repeatedly bursting through double- and sometimes triple-teams to get to the football. In 2009, he was named the Pacific 10 Conference's defensive player of the year and was drafted 35th overall.
Price, who played in five games as a rookie despite the painful hamstrings, was put on injured reserve in early November and immediately underwent surgery on one side of his pelvis. As a preemptive measure, the same surgery was performed on the other side in January. John Zvijac, the team's surgeon, performed the surgeries; the Buccaneers did not make him available for this story.
After the surgeries, Price was not able to dress himself or take a shower without help from his wife. The searing pain from his hamstrings radiated up into his back and did not allow him to sit through a movie. His mother and two sisters flew to Florida from Los Angeles to help while he recovered. The simplest tasks became chores.
"He's a big tennis shoe guy, he's got millions of shoes, and he couldn't wear the shoes he wanted to because he had to have someone else put the shoes on for him," said his wife, Candice (Davis) Price, a former USC hurdler. "Like a little kid, you've got to push their foot in … he wasn't able to push with his feet. Just the normal things he couldn't do."
His recovery was complicated by the lockout, because Price was not able to work with Toriscelli and therefore had to arrange a lot of his treatment himself. Returning to football by this season almost seemed like a fantasy.
Toriscelli got a chance to work with him for a day in April when the lockout was briefly lifted, and the trainer was not encouraged by what he saw. Price was dedicated as usual, and his tolerance for pain was typically sky-high, but he had so far to go.
Price was similarly discouraged in July, when he tried to run for the first time after surgery, and could not even get a block outside his Tampa high-rise before the searing pain in his hamstrings was too much to handle. He made it 10 steps.
The next day, he got farther. And the next day farther still.
"After a couple of weeks I was jogging far," he said. "I was proud of myself, like, 'Man, just a couple of weeks ago I could only do 10 steps. Look at me now.' "
He topped out at a mile, which was a lot for a huge man who had moved very little in the previous eight months. He bought a bike, and one day rode it eight miles. The recovery was slow and painful — it still is — but Price was inching forward.
"This guy has been in pain for literally a year," Toriscelli said. "I'm not talking about just mild discomfort. I'm talking about driving home he's got to sit on those bones, laying in bed, you just can't get away from it. Certainly trying to play professional football … it's just an absolutely remarkable thing, and a compliment to his drive and motivation. He is a very special person, I can tell you that."