Brad Dusek was walking from the locker room to the private field at Redskin Park the other day when seven weeks of rehabilitation on his badly torn hamstring muscle almost was jeopardized by a puddle of water.
Dusek didn't see the puddle, which was at the edge of a small patch of artificial turf. He slipped, his legs went out from under him and he executed what baseball men would consider a perfect hook slide.
"What have I done?" Dusek thought to himself as he looked down at his leg.
He moved gingerly, pulling himself up carefully. He flexed his leg. It didn't hurt any worse.
"Well, if I can live through that, I guess the leg is okay," Dusek said to a teammate.
And that might be the best news the Redskins have had in a week filled with a series of depressing injury reports. Dusek, their best linebacker, is healthy enough to resume his starting duties at Oakland Sunday.
His return couldn't come at a better time. With Washington's offense struggling to stay in one piece, Coach Jack Pardee is counting on a superior effort from his defensive unit. If Dusek can hold up, the defnse will be stronger than it's been all season. "Brad isn't ready to do everything he normally could do," Pardee said, "but this is the best he's been since he got hurt. He'll start off and we'll see what he can do and how far he can go.
"A lot of injuries you can mess with, but not a hamstring. There is only so much you can do when you have that type of injury. We couldn't push it. You don't want to get him out there and find out he can't perform certain tasks when he needs to."
But even a less-than-100-percent Dusek is better than no Dusek at all. In each of the first two games, he was in for only a handful of plays, yet still managed to come up with a vital fumble recovery against New York last week. It's what Pardee called "his instinct," that the Redskins have sorely missed.
Of the club's walking wounded, Dusek has shown the most progress. Tackle Terry Hermeling practiced yesterday on his bad knee, but Pardee said he planned to start with Gary Anderson, "until we see how he holds up. I'd rather not use Terry but we're not in a position where we can hold anyone out if we need him."
Cornerback Lemar Parrish also worked out and said he would play Sunday "because I'm feeling better and it's going to take a lot to keep me out of the game." Parish, who has a sore foot and shoulder, likely will share time with Jeris White, who has come on fast the last week.
Likewise, halfback Buddy Hardeman participated on a limited basis and his sprained ankle showed improvement. But Pardee won't play him unless he is convinced Hardeman can go at nearly full speed.
Pardee was far less optimistic about tight end Don Warren, who participated in a few plays but was limping noticably. "He might get ready for spot duty at best," Pardee said. "Rick Walker is ready to play a lot. Anyway, we hadn't planned on using Don so much against New York, but it just didn't work out that way."
Dusek also won't play full time, a change from his past years with Washington, when he was the team's iron man. Pardee would like to have him involved in a substitution pattern that puts him on the bench when the Redskins go to a nickel defense. That way, Pardee reasons, Dusek will be fresher for longer periods while Monte Coleman, a better pass defender, replaces him.
"It's a change for me but using a lot of people is what is making this team successful," Dusek said. "I think it will keep me stronger and fresher and it gets everyone involved. I'm anxious to see how it works."
He is just as anxious to test his hamstring. He hasn't really been able to go full speed since July 30, when he pulled the muscle in a freak occurrence during a training-camp nutcracker drill. The leg hemmorhaged and what was supposed to be a three-week recovery period stretched much longer.
Two of Dusek's best traits -- his quickness and anticipation -- contributed to his sustaining the injury. He was lined against tight end Grady Richardson in the one-on-one blocking drill and, as usual, was trying to get low in his stance so he could get off to a fast start.
"But the play got messed up and I sort of eased off but Grady kept coming," Dusek said. "I was halfways over him and he caught my leg and twisted it behind me. It went where a leg ought not go and the muscle tore."
The hamstring healed, but very slowly. Dusek became anxious to play a few weeks ago, but the Redskin's resisted the temptation of using him too much until they could see he had free movement in his leg.
"I wanted to get in there before, but I'm prejudiced," Dusek said. "They'd look at me carefully every week and say, 'No not yet.' I wanted to help out; it was tough not playing, especially since this was the first muscle pull I've ever had. I didn't know what to expect from it."
In Dusek's absence, Coleman was able to get extra playing time. As a result, he has blossomed into a legitimate NFL linebacker, and now Pardee would like to start both of them at the outside spots. The way injuries have eaten into the Redskin special teams, Coleman will shuffle in and out of the lineup Sunday while taking extra turns on the kick coverage squads.
Still, Coleman could wind up at Dusek's spot more than expected because no one is sure how long Dusek's leg will hold up. It is not back to full strength, there is still some pain and, he admits, "I'm not at my best speed yet." Dusek is depending heavily on experience to make up for any lost quickness, cheating a step or two on certain plays "to get me there a little faster than if I stayed in my normal position.
"I think I'm ready to go full time if someone got hurt and they needed me. Otherwise, I can fit into the rotation. This is by far the best it's felt since I hurt it. I could stretch out this week and get a pretty good flow."
Dusek's presence is vital to the defense's overall success. He is coming off probably his best season as a pro and his stability, especially after the string of squad injuries, makes him a very valuable commodity.
"Quite frankly," Pardee said, "when one of your best players is hurt, you are a weaker team. Monte has done a heck of a job in there and we want to keep him on the field for as long as we can. But Brad is a fine player; he's one of the strengths of our defense.You have to miss a guy like that. It just helps having him back, even under these conditions."
Neither Dusek nor Pardee is expecting miracles this Sunday. "I feel I can contribute, "Dusek said, "and I know they think that way, too, or they wouldn't let me play. I'll just have to find out how far I can go."