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Starting Again, Royal Has a Healthy Outlook

By Nunyo Demasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 27, 2004; Page D01

Tight end Robert Royal popped in a DVD of "Unbreakable" at his home a few weeks before the Washington Redskins training camp opened in late July. Royal watches the 2000 thriller starring Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson every few months -- for enjoyment, he says, not out of any connection he feels with the movie's main character, who has brittle bones that easily break.

Royal's first two seasons -- and starting opportunities -- were cut short because of injuries, including a fractured hip that occurred after minimal contact in Game 6 last year.

Tight end Robert Royal, in his third NFL season, had his first two seasons ended by injuries. (Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

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"I just look at it as a movie," said Royal, a fifth-round pick from LSU in 2002. "This is real life. I don't compare my life to a movie. I feel the best I've ever felt since I've been in the NFL. And I'm just trying to go out there and work hard every day. Of course injuries bother everyone, but I look at it as a part of football. It doesn't bother me as much as people think it has."

The 6-foot-4, 257-pound Royal will get his latest chance to start against Green Bay on Sunday after the Redskins released 10-year veteran Walter Rasby last week. Royal is a splendid pass-catcher at tight end, where his athletic ability and football smarts make him appealing to Coach Joe Gibbs. However, Royal, 25, must avoid the injuries that have marked his brief NFL career.

"That's been the knock on him that he's been hurt. Hopefully, those are unfortunate situations," said tight ends coach Rennie Simmons. "He'll be fine as long as he stays healthy."

The Redskins drafted Royal with coach Steve Spurrier's pass-oriented offense in mind. In 2002, Royal spent his rookie season on the injured reserve list after suffering a high left ankle sprain during the preseason finale. Royal had been slated as a starter that year after Rasby sprained an ankle causing him to miss the first several weeks of the regular season.

Royal impressed the Redskins during his rehabilitation by poring over the playbook and studying game film in preparation for the next season.

"I enjoy being around my teammates, and sitting in there trying to learn the offense," said Royal, who will be backed up by Fred Baxter on Sunday. "And it benefited me my second year."

In 2003, the Redskins didn't re-sign Rasby largely because the club viewed Royal as his replacement. And Royal won a competition against Zeron Flemister to become a starter. In the first six games, Royal caught five passes for 48 yards while contributing on special teams.

But Royal suffered a freak accident on Oct 12 during a 35-13 loss against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Royal was trying to block defensive end Simeon Rice by redirecting his path to quarterback Patrick Ramsey. But after Royal turned his body, he fell to the ground in pain with a fractured hip.

While Royal was recuperating from the injury, he was forced to undergo an appendectomy.

But Royal didn't let his latest ailment affect his outlook. Royal said he gets his determination from his grandmother, Shirley Jackson, who the tight end considers his role model. After she lost a kidney and went on dialysis, Royal said, it didn't stop her from her usual activities such as walking to the store.

"She was a very, very strong woman, very determined," Royal said. "She would go a 100 miles per hour and never stop."

The injuries during Royal's NFL career are in contrast to his college days. At LSU, Royal appeared in 42 games, starting 24. Royal was healthy enough for 59 catches and 707 yards to rank third among tight ends on the school's all-time list. Royal also ranked second with seven touchdowns.

During more than three decades as a trainer with Washington, Bubba Tyer has seen players labeled injury prone. Although Tyer concedes that some players are naturally sturdier than others, the Redskins' director of sports medicine believes that almost all injuries in the NFL stem from bad luck.

"There's something to it about being injury prone, and I can't put my finger on it," Tyer said yesterday. "I think the better shape you're in, you're less likely to get hurt. But sometimes injuries happen. That's a fact in this league. And you can also go for a long time and nothing happens."

The coaching staff wants Royal to lose a few pounds and increase his strength. Despite being known more for his pass-catching ability, Royal has improved his blocking since college when he wasn't asked to do much of it. The Redskins eventually saw little difference between Royal and Rasby, whose forte is blocking. The Redskins have started training him to play H-back, a hybrid tight end and fullback.

"He gives us a dual-purpose guy," Simmons said.

Before training camp started, Royal also shaved his familiar braids, which had been carefully manicured since he was a college underclassman.

"I just wanted a fresh start," he said.

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