2-20-02, 1:00 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals know of no cornerback who has ever come back from the kind of severe hamstring tear that felled Rodney Heath so grotesquely last season in front of 64,217 who winced at the accident as it unfolded in slow motion on the Paul Brown Stadium scoreboards.
Heath, in the process of gathering himself to make a tackle on a running play back on Oct. 14, felt his left leg slip out from underneath him and his career slip into the unknown. As Cleveland running back James Jackson sat on Heath's back for a weird instant, Bengals linebacker Adrian Ross finished off the play with a driving tackle and Heath's lower body bent in ways that set back geometry two centuries as the crowd gasped at the ugly angle.
But four months and six days after virtually all the hamstring had been torn off the bone, Heath is bidding to overcome the odds for the second time in four seasons. On Tuesday, he ran around the gym gingerly at Paul Brown Stadium and did some functional drills slowly, beating the doctors' estimates by a couple of weeks as he bids to be ready for the first day of training camp.
Heath goes about it all with the quiet determination of a blue-collar kid from the no-frills west side of Cincinnati and with the same passion that makes him throw his 170 pounds at the 240-pound Eddie Georges of the NFL.
The first time Heath outworked the odds came in 1999, when he walked out of a minor indoor league and went on to make 23 NFL starts for his hometown team after playing at Western Hills High School and the University of Minnesota.
Heath was carried off the field as the starter, but he won't be one when training camp opens. Ironically, Kevin Kaesviharn, another street free agent, also came out of an indoor league to take Heath's job. The other cornerback spot? Artrell Hawkins, a veteran free agent, or the team's No. 1 draft pick? But even if he's still a question mark, Heath is still held in high regard by a club that admires his toughness and character.
"Trying to make the team was tough and the second year was tough and the third year was tough," said Heath after another three-and-a-half hour rehab session at Paul Brown Stadium.
"But this year is going to be my toughest year," he said. "It's not dealing with everybody else. I'm dealing with me. I already proved I can play, but now it's all about coming back. This is the hardest I ever worked because I'm coming back from injury. Everything came so
naturally. Being fast and covering people. Now, I think I can still cover naturally, and the speed will come back, but I want to get back to where I was and then push forward. They keep telling me the big thing about the injury is not to think about it when I'm out there. It's the mental part."
But it's also the physical part. The hamstring is at the heart of what a cornerback does. He stops. He starts. He back pedals. He changes direction.
"This is my 25th year in the NFL and I haven't seen a grade 3 hamstring strain until we had two this year," said Bengals trainer Paul Sparling of the rare injuries to Heath and quarterback Akili Smith.
"He's doing well in terms of his workouts and the progress of his rehab," Sparling said. "He's right where he should be, maybe even a little bit ahead. But that doesn't mean we know what the end result is going to be."
But even if no one is sure he'll be able to do all the things a NFL cornerback has to do, Heath, 27, believes he'll not only be back, but he'll be better.
Which is why he goes from 8:30 a.m. to noon Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and from 8:30 a.m. to 10:45 a.m. Tuesday and Thursday in what has become his house of PBS pain supplied by trainer Billy Brooks, strength coach Kim Wood, and assistant strength coach Rodney Holman.
Every day, from 8:30 -10:45, Brooks puts Heath through a grueling array of exercises. If standing on only his left leg for up to two minutes won't make him utter some painful grunts, walking the length of the training room five times while squatting in a chair will.
There are wall situps and a 15-minute cool down on a stair machine. Heath prepared to run again by working on the underwater treadmill that went seven miles an hour a month before he got back on land. He says as far as flexibility goes, the left hamstring is back to even with the right now that they can be stretched the same length.
"It's the stretching that gives me the most stress," Heath said.
If Brooks doesn't give him enough grief, Wood and Holman do every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from about 11 to noon as Heath tours the weight room in the effort to build up his 170 pounds to somewhere north of 180.
Pop in there for a minute and you might see Wood monitoring Heath doing pushups with his feet elevated and his face dangerously near the floor.
"I'm looking to prolong my career, not just come back," Heath said. "I've wanted to get stronger in my upper body, but now there is no reason not to since I'm down here so much anyway."
But he's also working on his lower body as evidenced by one session on the leg machine. Starting with a set of 15 reps, Heath keeps piling on weight as he goes through sets of 12, eight, and finally six.
"Everything is for the body this offseason," Heath said. "Yeah, I got injured, but it was from kind of a fluke accident. So it just makes you want to get your whole body stronger. Work on your lower legs, your back, everything."
If it's Wednesday, Heath will be here. Throwing some more weight on the odds.