Two L.A.-area football players return to field after medical issues

Junior running back hasn't played since freshman year

There should be confetti, party hats and maybe even cake to celebrate the return to football practice this week of running backs Leo Lambert III of Sherman Oaks Notre Dame and Malik Roberson of Gardena Serra after each sat out the 2013 season because of serious medical issues.

Receiving a doctor's clearance sometimes is the easiest part in trying to come back from a season-ending injury. The toughest challenge is the mental obstacles, such as believing the injury is 100% healed and regaining self-confidence in one's own skills.


Both players will be tested.

Lambert was a standout on Notre Dame's 2012 freshman team, rushing for 2,067 yards and 34 touchdowns. He was supposed to become an impact varsity player last season, but he never got the chance after his dentist noticed a growth on the right side of his jaw.

In March 2013, he underwent 81/2 hours of surgery to remove a benign tumor. An additional four-hour surgery was needed 11 months later.

"It was scary, because I've never been through surgery," Lambert said. "I had to sit out the football season and didn't know what to expect when I came back."

He was 15, with dreams of earning a college scholarship.

"It sucks," he said last year while standing on the sideline. "I can't help my team."

Last month, Lambert was finally cleared to rejoin the Knights.

"It's an awesome feeling," he said.

During his first summer workout, he looked a little lost. He dropped a punt. He didn't know where to stand on defense. He looked tentative and uncertain. Considering he hadn't played football in nearly two years, it was expected he'd need time to adjust.

And he has. As fall practice begins Thursday for Notre Dame, Lambert's speed and instincts are returning. He's learning the plays. He's becoming comfortable again in the game he loves.

"He's back to being Leo," assistant coach Joe McNab said.

All that's left is to see how he responds when the pads come on and he gets hit.

"I don't know how it's going to feel, but I'm going to do it," Lambert said. "Whatever happens, happens."

If anything positive came out of his 20-month hiatus, it was learning to deal with adversity.


"It affected me a lot," he said. "I thought everything was against me. God was against me. Why me? I got a rare tumor. It could have happened to anyone, but it happened to me. It was difficult, but I'm back. I'm happy."

Lambert isn't the only highly regarded running back from the Mission League making a comeback this season. Serra's Roberson sat out all of his junior season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee while long jumping at the Southern Section Masters Meet in May 2013.

"I'm blessed to tackle this hurdle at such a young age," he said. "It questions you a lot and it reveals who I am as a person more than who I am as an athlete."

He has been cleared to return, but as Coach Scott Altenberg said, "It's just trusting everything, trusting cuts, trusting that it's going to hold out. He has to relearn how to play with that leg."

Added Roberson: "This is all mental and the most difficult part of my recovery."

Roberson said his biggest fears were "Will I ever be able to run again? Will I be able to jump like I used to? It's what drove me to come back. I want to be the senior player I dreamed about my sophomore year, have the senior year every senior dreams about."

On Aug. 29, Roberson will make his senior debut against Lakewood. On the same night, Lambert will make his junior debut against Manhattan Beach Mira Costa.

"I'm sure I'll be real nervous," Lambert said. "It will be a night I'm up until two in the morning thinking what I'm going to do."

On Sept. 26, Notre Dame plays Serra in what should be dubbed the "Comeback Bowl," featuring Lambert and Roberson. Perhaps they'll meet in the middle of the field and share a high-five, because only they know the pain and frustration they've experienced and the perseverance and patience that was required to make it back.