About this time a year ago, during a practice session at Cal Lutheran University, the disk in Jeff Rohrer's back became enlarged. He's not exactly sure why it happened, but he does knows that when the bulging disk hit his spinal cord it caused a loss of feeling in his left leg.
He also knows that he sat out the entire 1988 Dallas Cowboys season, and that many people thought he would never play football again.
After four years of college at Yale and seven years of professional football in Dallas, it looked like Rohrer would finally come home to Manhattan Beach for good.
"There was no way I was going out that way," Rohrer said shaking his sun-bleached blond hair. "I always knew I was going to give it a shot. I always knew I could do it."
Last year's surgery relieved the pressure, and a rehabilitation program that included daily swims, light running and weight training has Rohrer in playing form.
Now the veteran 222-pound linebacker, a former star at Mira Costa High School, is back in Thousand Oaks fighting for a spot with an organization that only vaguely resembles the one he has spent his entire NFL career with.
"It's a whole new ballgame out there," Rohrer said referring to new owner Jerry Jones and new coach Jimmy Johnson. "I'm kind of in the same boat that I was in when I came to the Cowboys. I've got to regroup because of the new staff and it's making me work harder."
In addition to proving that his back is no longer a liability, Rohrer must learn a new defensive system and beat out a corps of young, hungry players.
The Cowboys drafted four linebackers in this year's draft, and of the veterans, only Garry Cobb is older than Rohrer.
In general, the younger players have been getting more of a look, particularly Randy Shannon, who was drafted in the 11th round out of Miami.
In last week's exhibition game against the Chargers, Rohrer played only one down before the fourth quarter.
Rohrer says that his salary, which is considerably larger than the younger linebackers', is another disadvantage.
While seniority is a prized commodity at many companies, on the new Cowboys, it could just mean you're ancient history, given Johnson's penchant for youth.
"I think they've gotten rid of pretty much everyone they can afford to get rid of as far as the old guard," said the 31-year-old Rohrer. "We have time to rebuild, but on the other hand, I think they want to win. If they want to win, there are certain people they should keep. I hope I'm one of them."
Recently Rohrer has also tried to smooth his relationship with Jones. Known as a person who speaks his mind, Rohrer had been critical of the owner without much diplomacy or tact.
"I just thought that they handled the firing of (Tom) Landry very poorly," Rohrer said. "Everyone pretty much agrees on that, but I said some things to him (Jones) that I probably shouldn't have. I said some things that were pretty harsh."
Although he did not want to elaborate, Rohrer did say: "Hey, it's all in the past. We get along pretty well now. We've even shared a beer. But you never know when things like that could come back and bite you."
When Rohrer discusses his future in football, there is no note of worry or depair in his voice. It is not that he is casual about his predicament, only familiar with it. At every juncture in his career, he has surprisingly moved up to the next level when few thought he could.
In 1982, when the Cowboys drafted Rohrer out of Yale in the second round, the Dallas media was surprised and extremely critical of the choice.
Rohrer was equally surprised.
On draft day, Rohrer was in his dormitory studying for a exam when Gil Brandt, the Dallas player personnel director, called him. Rohrer thought it was a prank.
"I remember saying, 'Who is this really? I've got a test to study for, and I don't have time for this crap.'
"But I've been very lucky in many ways," Rohrer continued. "I came here and they gave me a chance to play and I've done a good job for them. I think they drafted me mainly because they had a real complex situation which they thought I could learn and fit into and I did. My skills also fit the position well."
After three seasons of special-teams play, Rohrer earned the starting role at right linebacker in 1985.
In '86 he was the Cowboys second leading tackler. The year before his injury, Rohrer led the linebackers with four sacks despite not playing on passing downs.
Not only has Rohrer beaten the odds in the NFL, but he surprised his coaches at Yale.
As a scrawny 6-2 185-pounder from Mira Costa High School, Rohrer was equally interested in playing football and hanging out at the beach. He remembers being initially intimidated by the credentials of some of his Eli teammates.
"When I went to college there were all these linebackers that they said were all-state here and all-state there," Rohrer recalled. "I just came in and said, 'Hey dudes.' I was all beach, all bodysurfer type. But I went in there and did real well."
Rohrer was part of a glory period at Yale.
In the late 1970s and early '80s, Carm Cozza's Elis won five Ivy League championships in six years, producing such other NFL players as Gary Fencik, Kenny Hill and John Spagnola.
Yale won the Ivy title all three of Rohrer's varsity seasons, losing only four games in that span.
In his senior year, Rohrer led the team with 136 tackles, including 71 solo tackles, and was named first team All-Ivy and All-New England.
"He really worked hard to become a strong player. Nothing seems to hamper his desire," said Cozza, who's coaching his 25th season at Yale. "If anything, adversity makes him get better or stronger because he does not give up the ship."
His career in the NFL has not overshadowed the importance of his college experience. Say the word "Princeton," and Rohrer will knit his brow, stare you in the eye and say through clenched teeth: "I hate Princeton."
Then his mind will race back to November 14, 1981, when Yale blew a 21-0 halftime lead and Princeton quarterback Bob Holly, who went on to play for the Washington Redskins, ran into the end zone on the last play of the game for a 35-31 victory. The loss spoiled Yale's undefeated season and forced a tie with Dartmouth for the championship.
"It is the one loss that still horrifies me," Rohrer said. "Out of everything in my whole career, if someone wants to get me mad, all they have to do is mention that game."
Obviously, his attachment to Yale is still very strong, and he credits the football program with instilling the attitude toward the game that he still maintains.
"It's the feeling of giving it the old college try, of doing it for Old Blue or for the Gipper, or whoever. Wins for wins' sake," Rohrer said. "I play for money now and I realize that, but I like to win and give it my all. That's what it's really all about, and that's when it's fun."
After his first six years in the NFL, Rohrer indicated that he may have started to lose his purist approach to the game, and he sees a positive result of the injury.
"You take a year off and you recharge your engines," Rohrer said. "A lot of guys, when it's late in their career, get bored. They've done it all. This was a good change for me."
Although he claims to have spent the year off as an international playboy, Rohrer, a business major in college, also pursued an economic venture. He has designed covers for golf woods modeled after beer cans. The plastic-and-foam covers have been well received by beer companies such as Miller, and production begins in two weeks.
Still, Rohrer says he will not be content only as an entrepreneur. Not yet anyway.
You can tell this during games by the way he paces on the edge of the sidelines, never straying far from the coach's eyes. Or by how kicks his feet, adjusts his helmet, and yells on to the field.
"I'm going to prove myself as soon as I get into games," Rohrer said. "That's where I perform. Practice is good, but just let me get into the game."