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In Full Health, Oquendo Keeps Drives Alive

By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 21, 2008

The two critical third-down receptions that Maryland wide receiver Danny Oquendo made on the decisive drive Saturday against North Carolina will be remembered as mere footnotes alongside more highlight-worthy plays, including a fourth-down scramble, a head-over-heels catch and a game-winning field goal.

The unsung role is fitting for Oquendo. On a team of quirky personalities and more heralded playmakers, the senior has made almost a concerted effort to draw little attention to himself for on-field accomplishments or off-the-field adversity.

Oquendo, who also returns punts, ranks second on the team in receiving yards, third in receptions and is Maryland's go-to playmaker on third downs. But Coach Ralph Friedgen said Oquendo is so reserved and stoic that he never shows any personal weakness, to the point where "you never even know he is there."

That was never more evident than last winter, when Oquendo began to feel dizzy and struggled to breathe during conditioning drills. Oquendo, who was born with a defect that left an extra tube in his heart, immediately knew the source of the problem.

A few times each year, normally when he played football, his heart fluttered. As a sophomore in high school, he went to the hospital because his heart fluttered too much during a game.

"My heart would be pumping blood like crazy, like it was on overdrive," Oquendo said.

Last winter, a heart specialist told him he could correct the problem, but that there was a 1-in-5 chance he would need to wear a pacemaker and would not be able to play football anymore. Even though he found the situation "scary," he chose not to tell most of his teammates or even his parents about the upcoming procedure because he did not want them to worry.

"I am not the type of guy to shed my problems out on other people," Oquendo said. "I'm more the type to hear you out and help you with your problems. I usually just keep it to myself and try to solve it myself."

So without his parents knowing, Oquendo, sedated but conscious, lay on a operating table in February, one computer-controlled tube snaking its way down his neck, another running up his groin area. Doctors corrected the problem and then removed the tubes, giving Oquendo a sensation "no analogy could describe. It was disgusting."

When his parents learned from others about the procedure, they were stunned, worried, upset and relieved all at once. Oquendo said his father, Daniel Oquendo, "flipped on me. He was upset. How could I not tell him something like that?"

The news of the procedure was a "shock to everybody, but that's Daniel," Oquendo's father said. "It's crazy to see, to deal with him day in and day out. You are like: 'Wow, what's going to faze you? These things don't move you? Are you alive?' He doesn't say anything."

Oquendo had been unflappable in the face of adversity before. He was born with his legs positioned outward, and doctors told his parents that he would not be able to run normally unless he corrected the problem by wearing braces as a child.

Until he was 4, Oquendo wore what he called "Forrest Gump-like braces" to straighten his legs. He wore them a few hours at a time during the day as well as while he slept. His father said he fussed about putting them on, but he never viewed the cumbersome attachments as a setback or hindrance.

In fact, the Oquendos have a home movie showing a 3-year-old Danny wearing braces but still trying to run around and slam dunk on a tiny hoop.

"The kid has always been on the move," Daniel Oquendo said. "He outgrew his braces."

In addition to football, Oquendo was one of the nation's best high school hurdlers, recording a time of 7.62 in the high hurdles, which was fourth-best in the country. But to this day, his legs occasionally flail while running some routes on the football field.

"I didn't realize how big a blessing it was for me to be doing this until later in life," Oquendo said. "I was like, 'Wow, I am really doing this on my own two feet.' "

His feet routinely enable him to get into the open field on third down, where he feels he is best. Oquendo's nine- and six-yard third-down receptions Saturday kept alive a 19-play drive that culminated with a game-winning field goal.

Tomorrow against a Florida State defense that thrives on third down, Oquendo won't be the most talked-about player on the field, but he could be among the more important playmakers.

"He has that quiet reserve, that quiet tenacity," Daniel Oquendo said. "He just doesn't let everybody see it. He tries to keep a low profile on everything."

Terrapin Note: Friedgen will open today's practice to Maryland students who present a valid student ID.

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