Walsh Has Come Full Circle : College football: After suffering season-ending injury against UCLA last year, BYU quarterback regained starting position this year and will face Bruins again Saturday.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It happened on, of all things, a running play. Fittingly, perhaps, a busted play. John Walsh had missed a handoff to Jamal Willis and was running left to try to make something out of nothing when UCLA's Nkosi Littleton hit him, spun him around and Arnold Ale finished him off . . . for the season.

It was only the third game of the 1992 season.

"Everything I had been playing for all this time I finally had in sight and this happened," Walsh said, remembering the play, the pain and all the days of work since.

Doctors told him the separation in his right shoulder would heal and that he would throw for Brigham Young again and thereafter, should the NFL come to call.

But at the time, he tried to stay in the game.

"The sideline wanted me to run a deep comeback," Walsh said. "Fortunately, UCLA called time out."

Walsh's next deep comeback came against New Mexico, 11 months later, this season, and only after he had won back the job that had been his, the one he coveted from the time he decided BYU was where he wanted to play.

He had never been injured. Walsh had known nothing but success from the time he stepped on a football field in the sixth grade to his senior season at Carson High, where he set a California high school record with 4,206 passing yards and 48 touchdowns.

As a freshman, he had trained under BYU's only Heisman Trophy winner, Ty Detmer, beating out a senior for the understudy role. Walsh had won a four-way competition over Steve Clements, Ryan Hancock and Tom Young.

Clements replaced Walsh against UCLA last year, but he, too, suffered a shoulder separation, also on a busted play, a week later. Hancock took over for Clements and won seven games, but he decided to play baseball in the spring and take himself out of the running for the quarterback job. Young, brother of the San Francisco 49ers' Steve, was co-most valuable player of the Aloha Bowl and the great-great-great grandson of Brigham himself.

Walsh was only a sophomore, with three seasons to see how far up he could be listed on Page 90 of the BYU media guide, where the exploits of Virgil Carter, Gifford Nielsen, Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Robbie Bosco and Detmer are testimony to the school as a quarterback factory.

He's still a sophomore, older, wiser and more understanding of the fragile nature of a football player after being granted a medical redshirt season.

"All I could think about was, 'If anything happens to my arm, it's my career,' " Walsh said.

So he traveled back to Southern California, where doctors accustomed to dealing with million-dollar arms assured him that life as he knew it was not over at age 19.

Then came throwing in practice, first with a Nerf football, then with a regulation ball, beginning at five yards and increasing incrementally.

Weights were lifted and, he says, the arm has become stronger than ever. He has proved it by passing for more than 300 yards three times. With 10 touchdown passes and only two interceptions, he has led the Cougars to a 4-0 record--they were only 1-2 when he was injured--and he has benefited from the time off, considering it almost a blessing.

"Last year, he only got a couple of games, but they helped him," said Bosco, now a BYU assistant. "No matter how fast you go in practice, it seems like a blur in the games, and he saw that and learned from it."

Remaining is a protruding collarbone and a resolve to make up for lost time.

"I knew that when I came back I would have to prove to the coaches that I could be 100%," Walsh said. "And I knew I would have to do it in a game. You can practice . . . but there's nothing like a game."

Against New Mexico, in BYU's opener, Walsh completed 24 of 38 passes for 384 yards and four touchdowns and stood up under a pass rush that hit him 12 times.

"Anytime you injure your shoulder, there are always thoughts: 'Can I get hit again? Can I throw again?' " Bosco said. "John proved he could do both."

It's something he will have to continue to display. At 6 feet 5 and 200 pounds, Walsh has a strong arm, but his feet are suspect and he gets hit a lot, 32 times--including a few running plays--for losses of 108 yards in four games this season.

"One of the problems he had last year was concentrating on a receiver," Bosco says. "Now, he's getting a lot better going to the second, third and fourth receivers in a pattern. That's important in our offense."

He also is getting older, which helps when he looks around the huddle and sees linemen whose maturity is partly owed to time off from school spent on missions for the Mormon church.

"Last year, that was a little difficult," Walsh acknowledged. "And in my freshman year, it was harder. I would look around the huddle and guys there were looking like my dad. I was trying to tell guys 25 and 26 years old what to do and I was 18."

He does it easily now, having demonstrated that he can lead them and having shown the courage to return from injury.

Saturday night, he comes home to play UCLA in the Rose Bowl, where the memories of his last game aren't all that pleasant. He had played in the 1991 Shrine Game there, which, he said, he regrets because he was not allowed to throw by South team Coach Dick Barrett of Lompoc High, who was trying to showcase his player, Napoleon Kaufman.

But it is a trip home. "My dad has about 40 tickets," Walsh said.

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