Jim Collins Can Only Watch . . . and Wait : Injured Ram Linebacker Realizes His Career May Be in Jeopardy

Times Staff Writer

The highlight of Jim Collins' football career was playing in the Pro Bowl last winter, an honor most students of the game thought was long overdue.

It was one of those experiences a guy would like to freeze-frame, the better to preserve it in the scrapbook of the mind.

In a way, that's how it has been. Collins' career as an inside linebacker for the Rams has been on hold ever since.

"I was just making a tackle," he recalled this week. "Marcus Allen was cutting up(field) and I was coming across. It was no extraordinary collision. I just made a hit and somehow, the way my shoulder was positioned, it did something to the nerve there.

"The thing just went numb. It didn't hurt. There was no pain. I kept playing, hoping that I'd shake it off. But my arm sort of stayed like a noodle the rest of the way. Eventually, I came out of the game and figured in a couple of days it would start to come around. It never did."

There is a chance it never will, but Collins is not prepared to deal with the grim prospect that his career may be over at 28.

Collins has spent most days since last winter in the weight room at Rams Park, pushing himself through tedious workouts the hard way, without the rewarding carrot of a season or a game at the end of a stick. He goes to team meetings, he goes to the games, he travels with the team, and does about everything the other players do, even feels in his guts the way they do, right up until the kickoff.

Then he feels about as useful as a one-armed linebacker. The Rams' opening game at St. Louis was his lowest point.

"Practice is one thing, but when you stand on the sideline for the first game and realize that you feel so useless. . . . Coach (John) Robinson gave this big pep talk, and I'm pumped up like I'm ready to play, sitting there in my street clothes. I'm walking out there and mentally I'm ready to play. My adrenaline is pumping.

"I want to go out there with one arm and see what I can do, but realistically you can't. It's been a very depressing time for me. I've been down in the dumps all year long. I hate standing there watching practice or standing there watching games. It eats me up."

Fritz Shurmur, the defensive coordinator, issued him a clipboard.

"That's my job," Collins said, forcing a wry smile. "I chart the (defensive) calls. Fritz gives the calls and I write 'em down, the distance and the calls. If he wants to look at what he's been calling, he can. Yeah, he checks 'em out. He lets me make a few calls now and then. That's about all I do.

"They originally said I'd be able to start the season, then they were hoping October, and here's October and it still hasn't made enough progress."

At midseason, it's becoming apparent that he may not play at all.

"I'm still hoping," Collins said, still sweating after a workout. "I wouldn't be here busting my butt if I didn't have hopes of playing. But I'm getting less optimistic all the time. Each week is longer into the season. At the pace it's going now, it's gonna be tough."

The problem is an injury to the nerve that activates the deltoid muscle in Collins' left shoulder.

"The nerve is not sending a signal, so the muscle's not working," Collins says. "But it's starting to work a little bit now. It's hard to tell, week to week, but if I look back to the beginning of camp, it's doing some things now it wasn't then.

"I've got a little bit of muscle response in some areas where I didn't have any before. I didn't have any contraction at all. I can feel the muscles contract a little bit when I do some things. That's a sign that it is coming back. It's just really slow. There's not much you can do for it to treat it. The nerve has to regenerate on its own and you can't do much to speed up the process."

The deltoid is used to lift the arm up to the side, with force, "as if to shrug off a blocker," said Dr. Robert Kerlan, the Rams' team physician.

Without a deltoid, Collins says, "If you've gotta take on a blocker, you just get killed."

There is no pain. If it were simply a matter of playing in pain, Collins would be playing.

"I'd rather have excruciating pain and be able to use it," he said. "I played with a torn biceps for six games. That was real painful. Anytime I grabbed, I had a sharp pain there. Hey, I don't like playing with pain, but I can do it. This is something where it just doesn't function."

Garrett Giemont, the team's strength trainer, said that Collins' injury is unlike a torn knee ligament or separated shoulder, where the healing and rehabilitation processes usually follow a reliable schedule.

"He's getting stronger, but it's not measured by pounds, it's measured by ounces," Giemont said. "When it's going to be totally healed and back to normal size, no one can say. Usually, a nerve will regenerate, but it regenerates so slowly that we're not even talking about crawling."

As experienced as Kerlan is in dealing with athletic injuries, Collins' is unique to him.

"We see it on occasion, but I haven't seen it to this extent in a football player," he said. "There are times when another muscle can take over a function, but I'm not sure that can happen in a linebacker. If it comes back, it might take 9 to 12 months."

Meaning, it may never come back?

"That's always a possibility," Kerlan said. "The longer the nerve goes without showing progress, the less optimistic it becomes."

Collins has been having electromyogram tests done about every two months since the injury.

"They put needles in you and send current through it and check the muscle response," Collins said.

He'll have another one Thursday. He'll try almost anything. He tried acupuncture, on his own.

"The (Ram) doctors really aren't into that stuff, but I figured I've got nothing to lose," he said. "I went a couple of times, but acupuncture is more for blocking pain."

Meanwhile, Collins' former backup, Mark Jerue, has taken over the position and played well. He forced a fumble and returned an intercepted pass for a touchdown in the 14-7 win over Atlanta last week.

"We talk about stuff, and he asks questions," Collins said. "But he's comfortable in there now to where he really doesn't need much help."

The fact is, it's Jerue's job now.

"Anytime you're hurt and someone else is in there playing well, you've gotta start over," Collins said. "I'll have to win my spot back. But I'll bust my butt and get back in there somehow."

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