By Mike Wise
Monday, July 30, 2007
First game. First play of the season. Opening kickoff. Pierson Prioleau had made the same cut a million times in his career, but this time when he tried to avoid the player sent to block him his foot lodged in the ground. His knee locked up.
He went down in agony. Season's done. First game. First play.
"Well, it definitely wasn't a good omen," he said, half smiling, sitting outside the Redskins' locker room last night as he fingered the three-inch scar on his right knee.
It's true that losing Clinton Portis to injury in the preseason was an awful harbinger of things to come. But Prioleau's torn ACL on "Monday Night Football" against Minnesota might be an even larger window into what misfortune awaited the Redskins last season.
Unbeknownst to fans and the media, Prioleau was supposed to start at safety that night instead of Adam Archuleta, the $30 million bust who had already fallen out of favor with the coaching staff.
Prioleau wasn't Marcus Washington or Sean Taylor going down. He would probably not have had 10 interceptions and made up for the deficiencies of the team's cornerbacks getting beat deep. But Prioleau is smart and extremely versatile at the position. The changes would have been subtle.
Taylor might have been in the right spot more often. Maybe the 29-year-old veteran would have brought cohesion to the defense that did not materialize. Maybe he would have taken Archuleta's job and after a week of controversy, that debacle goes away much quicker.
"It was unfortunate how the Adam Archuleta situation played out," Prioleau said. "But I had control of my own destiny at that time. I could go in there, play well and maybe start the next game. Sometimes, you think, 'Man, I missed out on a big opportunity that night.' But I'm a firm believer in that everything happens for a reason. Maybe this is my time."
Prioleau, whom teammates and coaches refer to as "P-Low," is the guy supposedly keeping LaRon Landry's seat warm until the sixth pick in the draft comes to terms with the team and shows his mettle as a strong safety. (Beautiful, no? They pluck a guy to take the job of perhaps the best comeback story on the team.) Prioleau would like both he and Landry to see significant playing time, but added, "What he can expect from me is my full support in his development." Prioleau -- pronounced "Pray-low" -- can be an idealist like that, because there's nothing else to be when you're laying on the field almost 11 months ago, wondering if your NFL shelf-life has just expired.
He had not had such a catastrophic injury before. Prioleau played 14 or more games a season in six of his first seven years. Dating from grade school, his worst injury before his knee blew out was a pulled hamstring.
"Initially I had thoughts about career and all that," he said. But Prioleau went to see famed knee surgeon James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala. Rather than use a bone graft from an organ donor, which some older athletes prefer, Andrews took part of the patella tendon from Prioleau's left knee and used it to reconstruct the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Then came months of rehab for the player who became more of an offseason fixture in Ashburn than Jason Campbell.
It began with elementary stretches and leg lifts on a training table with director of rehabilitation, Larry Hess. He gradually moved from the table to the machines. Machines to the treadmill. Treadmill to the field, where his agility began to slowly return.
"I don't want to say older players flinch, but they're more aware of the consequences of injuries than young kids are," said Bubba Tyer, the team's head trainer. "He just went through an awful injury on the opening kickoff of the first game and he had some doubts. But they went away quick."
"Biologically it's proven age has a little to do with the healing process," Prioleau said. "Young guys heal faster. But I knew if I worked hard I'd seen other guys come back from the injury that are older than I am. I know that hard work would be rewarded."
During his rehab, he was told about the Virginia Tech shootings and looked on in stunned disbelief from the training-room table as the story unfolded on television. Long before the tragedy, Prioleau, who starred for the Hokies, would test the patience of his teammates on Saturdays by wearing Hokie paraphernalia and talking up each Tech game until his throat went dry.
"When the tragedy happened, although everybody I knew was safe, I felt that I lost brothers and sisters and family members," he said. "When I started watching it, I thought, 'This is just TV,' " he said. "But then I started recognizing places and thought, 'This is home.' "
Shaken, Prioleau went back to his physical therapy that day and continued the process of rehabilitating his knee.
He knows it will take much longer than a year for the pain to subside enough where he feels like he used to. But Prioleau made it back to the field for training camp, a suddenly healthy symbol from a lost season.