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So Far, So Good : USC’s Rodney Peete Is on His Way Toward Full Recovery

Times Staff Writer

All signs point to a full recovery for quarterback Rodney Peete of USC, who suffered a torn Achilles’ tendon in the Trojans’ Aloha Bowl game against Alabama on Dec. 28.

Peete’s left leg was in a cast and he was on crutches for six weeks. When the cast came off, he wore a brace, which he discarded Tuesday, two weeks ahead of schedule. He has been swimming, riding a stationary bike and lifting weights. The next phase is jogging.

Then, in July, he will begin to step up his training program in preparation for the start of USC’s summer camp at UC Irvine in mid-August.

So far, so good.

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But there is always the nagging doubt that Peete, who showed so much promise at the end of last season as a redshirt freshman, may not regain that burst of speed and elusiveness that set him apart from other quarterbacks and added another dimension to USC’s offense.

Although quarterback Kevin McLean has performed competently in spring practice, which ended Friday, and junior college transfer Jason Schmid is a decent prospect, the Trojans’ hopes for a winning season will be brighter if Peete’s agility is not affected.

USC, which was generally favored to win the Pacific 10 championship last year, is coming off a disappointing 6-6 season. So Peete’s physical progress is a primary concern.

“Since I’m young (20), I’ve been told that my chances of coming back are 100% better than if I was older,” Peete said. “But there is no way to say if (the injury) will affect my speed or quickness. However, if I do what I’m told to do, I should come back like I was. But there is no way to tell if my leg is any weaker or stronger until camp time in August.”

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USC Coach Ted Tollner is cautiously optimistic about Peete’s recovery.

“Everybody I talk to says he’s on schedule, and every logical reason says he’ll be all right,” Tollner said. “The percentages are in his favor, but there is a percentage that says he might not be.

“That burst of speed is one of his strengths, the ability to run away from problems. But in making that burst, you put a lot of pressure on the Achilles, to push off and explode. He is doing all the right things. But we won’t know until we put him in a situation where he has to make a boom-boom burst.”

Peete replaced Sean Salisbury as starting quarterback for the last four games of the 1985 season. He was poised despite his inexperience and had his most memorable afternoon in USC’s 17-13 upset of UCLA.

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The Bruins were dominant most of the game, but the fourth quarter belonged to Peete. His quarterback draw sustained a late drive, then he rolled out for three yards on fourth-and-two, setting up the winning touchdown, which he scored on a quarterback sneak.

Then in the Aloha Bowl, USC was losing to Alabama, 20-3, in the fourth quarter when Peete retreated to pass.

“I dropped back, threw the ball and watched Ken Henry make the catch,” Peete said. “I was a little bit up in the air when I released the ball, and when I came back down, I felt a total numbness right away--a tingling like pins and needles were sticking in my leg.

“I told everyone at the time that an Alabama player fell on the back of my leg, or it felt that someone came up behind me and kicked me. But after I looked at the films, there was no one around me.

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“So, it was sort of weird. When I came back down, the tendon snapped. It kind of scared me. If it happened that easily, with no contact, then it could happen walking down the street.”

“I was told later that’s how most of those injuries occur. When I fell to the ground, I grabbed my leg to try to get some feeling back into it. When I started to get up, it really started hurting. Then, I went back down again.”

Peete said that Dr. Richard Diehl told him in the dressing room how serious his injury was, that surgery was necessary and that it would take six months to heal.

“ ‘What are you talking about,’ I thought at the time,” Peete recalled. “I thought it was just a bad sprain. Six months? In a cast? I just couldn’t believe him.”

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Peete said his first thought after he had absorbed the bad news was that he wouldn’t be able to play baseball in the spring. He was expected to start at an infield position.

“Yes, there were some depressing moments at first,” Peete said. “I watched other guys running and walking around and here I am on crutches. That was the hardest part to deal with.”

But Peete has regained an optimistic attitude. He has strictly adhered to a rehabilitation program. He also showed up every day to watch spring practice, then become a spectator again at night and on weekends at Trojan baseball games.

“The way I look at it is that every athlete goes through something like this, and it was just my time,” Peete said. “It’s just a test to see if I can handle it and improve myself. It has allowed me to think what is really important to me. I can’t do any running now, so I go to the weight room to get my upper body in shape. Then, when it’s time to run, I can concentrate on that.”

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Achilles injuries have ended athletic careers, but others have survived them. Take Lester Josephson, for example, a former Ram halfback.

Josephson suffered a partial tear as he was running onto the field at the start of an exhibition game at the Coliseum in 1968. Then, four weeks later, he completely severed his Achilles from the heel bone while jumping rope in the Rams’ training quarters. Josephson, 26 at the time of the injury, returned to play six productive seasons with the Rams.

“I lost a little bit of speed from a 4.6 40-yard dash time to 4.65,” said Josephson, who lives in Tucson and is a radio color commentator for University of Arizona football games.

“The hardest thing for Rodney is not the injury. Everything medically has been done for him. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that he believes it. The real test will come when he’s scrambling in a game and has normal reactions without thinking about it.”

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Meanwhile, McLean, a junior, who has been in limbo in the quarterback rotation since starting against LSU in 1984, is making the most of his opportunity.

“Kevin really had a good spring,” Tollner said. “We’re doing more with the passing game, and that’s his strength. Schmid has also had a good spring, considering that he has had to learn everything all at once. I feel very good about the potential depth at the position, assuming that Rodney comes back.”

Peete said he is confident that he will make a full recovery without losing any of his skills.

“There’s no doubt in my mind,” he said. “It’s hard, though, because we’ve put a lot of new stuff in our offense--split backs to get our backs into the passing offense while retaining the I and single-back formations, along with some new plays.”

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“Even though I go to every quarterback meeting and have the mental part down, I can’t take part physically. (The other quarterbacks) have the edge over me because they’re practicing the physical part.”

McLean will probably be the No. 1 quarterback going into summer practice because he has been indoctrinated in the revised offensive system.

“Rodney performed well in all of the four games he started last year and he’s a very fine talent,” Tollner said. “But the competitive thing has to be there for all of the positions, and until Rodney comes back and competes and performs, some questions can’t be answered.”


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