Braham can play

10-3-01, 4:20 p.m

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Rich Braham is back at center for the Bengals for Sunday's game against Pittsburgh after doctors said his herniated neck disc poses minimal risks if he plays.

Bengals trainer Paul Sparling said Wednesday that Braham's situation has to be closely monitored week to week and that he could need season-ending surgery if his symptoms change.

But since the bulging disc is low in the neck and since there is no tingling, numbness or weakness, Sparling said it is safe for Braham to play.

"This is why they hired me, to play football," said Braham, who signed a two-year deal before the season. "It's what I enjoy doing and as long as I'm not at risk, I want to play. I played the first three games with it and I feel like I ought to be able to go the rest of the way with it."

Sparling said Braham would wear a protective collar

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that acts like a safety belt, which will prevent his head from going "into full hyperextension. It should not inhibit what he has to do."

The club made the call after Dr. Gordon Bell examined Braham Wednesday morning at the Cleveland Clinic and agreed with other Cincinnati doctors who thought Braham could play. The initial diagnosis Monday was he needed surgery.

Sparling said when the Bengals examine college prospects at the annual NFL scouting combine, they routinely come across linemen who have similar findings on their MRIs.

"But there's no clinical finding of numbness, tingling and weakness," Sparling said, "and they've been playing for years and continue to play for years. We're cautiously optimistic he'll be able to do it."

On Tuesday, the Bengals brought in for tryouts Quentin Neujahr, a seven-year player who has been with three clubs, and John Romero, a sixth-round pick of the Eagles a year ago. But Bengals President Mike Brown said the finding of multiple doctors has convinced the club Braham is as healthy as he was for the past few games and won't make roster moves now.

Braham didn't get back from Cleveland in time to practice Wednesday, but is expected to work Thursday.

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