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It Hurts Just to Watch : While He Is Thankful That He Wasn’t Seriously Injured, Being on the Sideline Still Is Painful for USC’s Burns

TIMES STAFF WRITER

DeChon Burns could hardly bear to watch last week when the USC football team began two-a-day workouts.

“You don’t know how much you love something until it’s taken away from you,” Burns said. “I can’t describe how difficult it was to watch (the first day of) practice. They were running and they were hurting--it looked like it was hell--but I would have given my arm or my leg just to be out there going through that pain.”

Burns was projected to be a starter at cornerback for the Trojans when, a year ago this week, he was advised by doctors to quit football. He was told that because of the structure of his spinal column, he ran the risk of paralysis if he continued playing.

The abnormality in Burns’ spinal column was discovered after he was hit during a scrimmage by former teammate Ed Chavez, whose block knocked Burns off his feet and onto his back. As Burns landed, his head snapped back.

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Although Burns felt well enough the next day to lift weights and run, tests revealed that he was born with a narrow spinal column and that, through several years of playing football, the area around it had closed tighter. A disk was protruding into his spinal column, putting him at risk.

While thankful that his condition was discovered before he was seriously injured, Burns went into a deep depression, unable to come to terms with the fact that he would no longer be able to play the game that had taken him so far. It earned him a scholarship to USC out of Rubidoux High in Riverside, where he was student body president and a three-sport star.

Then, last fall, his marriage ended in divorce after 15 months.

Asked if one event led to the other, Burns was hesitant.

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“I’d rather not say,” he said.

He said that he still thinks almost constantly about

returning to the field, holding out

hope that one more test will reveal that the disk in his spinal column has shifted out of harm’s way.

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“When you’re an athlete in the prime of your career, you don’t want to hear about coaching, about being ‘an intelligent young man’ and having ‘a bright future ahead of you,’ ” said Burns, who is working as a student assistant coach this season. “I’m only 21, and all my friends and colleagues are out there (playing).”

Well aware of the dangers involved, Burns said he wouldn’t hesitate if USC cleared him to play.

“I’ve been playing for 14 years and I’ve only been on earth 21,” he said. “So, only seven years have I been without (football). It’s a part of me. I know there are a lot of other things out there for me--I’m well aware of that--but I haven’t worked at those other things for 14 years. I’ve worked at athletics to make something of myself.

“It’s a childhood dream we all have. And when it’s right out there in front of your face where you can taste it, when you wait patiently (at USC) for two years--go through the ropes, pay your dues, learn the system--and then have it taken away from you, that’s really painful.

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“I know a lot of people don’t understand, but this is something I really, truly want to do.”

In the past year, Burns said, hardly a day has passed when he didn’t think to himself, “Why me?”

He added: “It’s been very trying, but with the support of family and friends and prayer, I’ve been able to make it through without crumbling and flunking out of school--without just generally going off the deep end.”

His marital problems started soon after he was injured.

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“I thought that I could go and receive support from my wife when I was hurt, but then I had problems with her and that pushed me down farther,” he said. “I didn’t have the support I was counting on, so I was basically fending for myself. My family was only a phone call away, but those lonely nights were pretty depressing.”

Still, he maintained a full class load, he said, and remained on schedule to graduate next spring with a degree in business communications.

“I’m really proud of myself,” Burns said. “I could have just given up. I was supposed to be a starter and now I can’t play, my football career’s down the tubes, my wife and I are no longer together, I had an unsuccessful marriage. . . . “

Burns acknowledged that he is fortunate he is not paralyzed and, except that he can’t play football, he is not limited physically.

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Said Burns: “I can still put a few (weighted) plates on the bench (press) and lift it and I can run a 40-yard dash and play basketball without my knees hurting.”

Still, his contribution at USC this season will be limited to his duties as a coach, which include editing videotape and working with the scout-team defense.

“I think he realizes that he’s making a different contribution than if he were playing, but he is, in fact, making a contribution,” said Bob Cope, who coaches USC’s defensive backs.

Burns has spoken with Coach Larry Smith and several others about pursuing a coaching career, but he is not yet ready to take a place on the sidelines. An all-Riverside County outfielder in high school, he might try out for the USC baseball team next spring.

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“I’m going to try to get rid of all this athletic energy I have and exhaust myself there,” he said. “And then I’ll say, ‘I’ve tried.’ Either I’ll be good enough to make it to the next level or I won’t. And then I’ll go from there.”


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