Linebacker Brad Dusek has progressed so quickly from the back surgery he underwent nearly three months ago that he believes he will be in uniform when the Redskins open the regular NFL season Sept. 6.
"I've still got a long way to go and a lot of things could happen, but the way things have gone so far, I think I'll be ready when the season opens," he said after a workout at Redskin Park.
Dusek's confidence is echoed by trainer Bubba Tyer, who is supervising Dusek's rehabilitation, along with assistant trainer Keoki Kamau.
"We're not about to make concrete predictions," Tyer said, "but I think it is realistic to feel he can be ready by early September. Our goal is to have him ready for the first game and we're on schedule. He's really pushed himself as hard as you could ask."
If Dusek, the club's best linebacker and a team leader, can return by that time, it would boost the Redskin linebacking corps, which has been ravaged by retirements and injuries.
The Redskins have only three healthy, experienced linebackers going into training camp next week. Coach Joe Gibbs calls the position "our biggest headache," although some depth was added yesterday when the team signed Willie Banks, who played middle linebacker for two seasons in Canada after almost making the Washington roster in 1979.
Following surgery in April to correct a defective disk, Redskin officials figured Dusek would miss the majority, if not all, of the upcoming season. His type of operation normally takes at least six months to heal completely. And the rehabilitation process is slow and sometimes painful.
But so far, Dusek has experienced little discomfort as he gradually increases his work load. He has progressed from relative inactivity to swimming, to weightlifting and brisk exercise on stationary bikes and other machines at the park.
However, he still has some major hurdles to overcome. He has jogged lightly only once. He has not done any twisting motion common to linebacker play. And, of course, he has not been exposed to contact.
"I'm not sure when I'll be ready for contact. I'm not setting a schedule for that. But for some reason, I'm not worried about it. When I can start hitting, I feel it will be the right thing to do."
Dusek's back is not healed completely. But he has been told by former teammate Dan Nugent, who underwent a similar operation in 1979, that he is much farther along in his rehabilitation process than Nugent was at the same stage.
"We're working him hard," said Tyer. "He turns red in the face and his heart is pumping. He's done everything we've asked so far and has had no soreness or side effects. I'm optimistic as hell about his recovery."
Dusek's recovery has been complicated by his relative inactivity prior to the surgery. He had not begun his off-season workout program when he attended a minicamp in April, where his back problems erupted without warning.
"I was out of shape, so now I've had to make up for the three months prior to the minicamp, plus the months since the operation," Dusek said. "It's meant coming from way back.
"I'm weak. My back needs to be built up a lot more, I can tell that. It's like having atrophy in a broken leg. But I had to have the operation. The pain was so bad after the minicamp that even laying down didn't help. They thought traction would ease it, but nothing did.
"I had been having problems with my left leg since I pulled that hamstring in training camp last year. But no one thought it was a back problem. I guess the minicamp was all it needed to give way.
"Then right after the operation, the pain was gone. The only discomfort I've had has been in my left calf, and that has gone away. Other than that, I've been fine."
Kamau has been a tough taskmaster, especially when twisting and pulling Dusek's legs while the linebacker is on his stomach on a training table.
"I can't bend it any more," Dusek yells, his face red and twisted in pain.
"Yes, you can," Kamau says firmly.
And Dusek groans some more, before following his orders. It has all the look of torture, the voluntary kind.
"Keoki is something," Dusek said later. "He really pushes me. But that's good. I hate to admit this, but I'll probably be in better shape for this season than I've ever been in my life."
For the first month after surgery, Dusek wasn't allowed to even drive a car. Then he began swimming and doing some light exercising. For the last month, he has been putting in daily two-hour appearances at the park. Next week, he plans to go to training camp in Carlisle, Pa., where he hopes to start two-a-day individual workouts.
"It's time that I increased my work," he said. "Being at camp will be good for me. All the equipment will be up there, and so will Keoki. Then it will be a matter of progressing as fast as my body lets me."
Dusek's even disposition has served him well during the rehabilitation. He has not expected miracles, which has helped him avoid disappointments. And he says if he isn't ready for the opener, he won't be crushed.
"It's something I want to do, but if I can't, I can't. I don't want to try anything before I'm ready. This is a first-time thing for me, so I have no idea what to expect. But I've still got plenty of time to heal. There is no reason to rush things."