Barndt muscles back

4-03-01, 2:25 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Ask Tom Barndt about two being better than one.

Ask the Bengals defensive tackle after he spent the worst season of his five-year pro career trying to grab NFL centers and guards with one arm.

Ask after the two-hour surgery in January stretched to three and then to five as they rebuilt his left shoulder during a grueling procedure in which Dr. Tim Kremchek reached under Barndt's skin and pulled his dangling pectoral muscle out of his chest and attached it back to his shoulder.

"I feel like the Bionic Man," said Barndt this week as he returned to the Bengals' weight room for the first time. "But I feel good. I feel strong again. Before, I had a ceiling of how strong I could get because the shoulder just wasn't stable. Now I'm past that."

Barndt, who just turned 29, is more like the $11 million man instead of the rebuilt bionic Steve Austin's $6 million from silly '70s TV.

That $11 million is the

total of the five-year deal he signed with the Bengals last season after a productive two years as a starter in Kansas City in which he racked up 111 tackles and six sacks while playing 53 straight games.

But after injuring his chest just before Cincinnati's pre-season opener, Barndt returned for the regular-season opener and struggled playing in his five starts. He sat out two games and came off the bench in the rest while a second magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test late in the season showed more damage than the first.

"Typically, it's not the kind of injury that needs surgery," said Bengals trainer Paul Sparling. "If we had done surgery in August, he would have been out for the season. The MRIs during the season didn't indicate the damage he had at the end of the season. We're still not sure when he did it."

Barndt kept playing during a bleak season he had fewer tackles (12) than games played (14) and at one point discarded a shoulder harness because he thought it too restrictive.

Barndt never offered excuses, yet he acknowledges now, "maybe it was stupid (to keep playing). . .It's definitely better playing healthy. . .I thought I could play with it. It's an ego thing. You see other guys playing hurt, going down and you know they need help. Realistically, it just wasn't happening."

The Bengals responded to Barndt's struggles by making Vikings defensive tackle Tony Williams their first free-agent signing last month with the intent of putting him in the starting lineup.

"You have to expect it's going to start off like that," Barndt said. "We'll see how things shake out. It's their business, their team. It's like every team. They look for more guys. And I know everybody won't play every down."

Kremchek, who has seen some pretty chewed up shoulders as the Cincinnati Reds' doctor, agreed with the decision to wait until after the season to have surgery. He had a workout with Barndt.

Kremchek found he basically didn't have a pectoral muscle, since it hung from the bone by a couple of strands. He also worked on the shoulder's capsule and fixed up cartilage with five screws.

"A lot of things are hard to find on MRIs," Barndt said. "My only concern is we found out what it was and that it got fixed. And it has been."

So the Bengals haven't really had Barndt play in a game yet with two arms. If he plays with those like he did in '98 and '99, the Bengals could conceivably end up with two new tackles in Williams and the rebuilt Barndt.

He'll know more Wednesday, when he gets checked by Kremchek. Barndt doesn't have the full go to lift weights yet, but he knows how the rehab feels.

"Great," Barndt said. "A lot better than it was."

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