You want to know what Jeff Bostic, the Redskins' center, felt the day he went down in a heap against the St. Louis Cardinals, back in October? It was the kind of deal, he said later, where you want to pick your head up off the ground and check the plates on the truck that hit you. Only you can't move for the pain in your leg, and the ugly feeling that this is the end of something.
When you hear it sounds like a shotgun blast, like a top popped on a can of beer, or a rotten tomato thrown against a cement wall . . . well, it just doesn't. You rupture three ligaments and damage some cartilage, as Bostic did, and all you hear is the sound and fury of your own heart trying to beat clean out of your chest.
"It was on my mother's birthday, the day it happened," Bostic said recently. "I remember the play: 50-boot. A bootleg. But until I saw it on tape, I never knew who hit me."
The doctors said give it nine months to a year, he'd be back, playing just as hard. Bostic figured that meant sometime in September, maybe a little later. The team trainer, Bubba Tyer, told him no, the knee never would be the same, but he still would be able to make a contribution playing professional football. He would make All-Pro again, because, Tyer said, Bostic has "the mental toughness, the attitude and everything else it takes to get over this kind of injury."
The Redskins' training camp opens this week at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., the place, assistant trainer Keoki Kamau said, "where most of the work will be done. We'll have a little more control over him during the day and the level of intensity will pick up. It's strenuous work and it's not easy for him, but he's come a long way. Jeff will continue to work at his own pace, giving everything he can during this period of rehabilitation, and he'll know when he's ready to play."
Still, it's not easy. None of it is. But sometimes you leave things out on the football field. You leave your knee out there and they carry you off on a piece of canvas stretched taut between two pine poles. Young men in white poplin slacks and shirts with a hundred little pockets do the carrying, trying not to strain against the terrific weight. Then somebody in the room where they put bodies back together says, "Nine months, a year from now, you won't even remember messing up your leg like that."
And if it's in you, that tiny spark of rage, that sudden meanness, you turn to a wall as big and empty as the hole in your gut and say, "Yeah, and all I'll have is an eight-inch scar to remind me every last day for the rest of my life." And manage to shut everybody up forever, if only for now.
The pain went away about a week after he returned home from the hospital, sometime before they removed his cast and put on a brace. But the hard part had just begun. No way did the knee hurt as much as sitting at home watching on television as his teammates played the last games of the season. The terrain on a color unit is okay but nothing like the real thing. He told his wife, "I should be playing."
A few of the fellows, hoping to make him loosen up days after it happened, said some people would do anything to miss practice for a couple of weeks. They laughed at that, thinking it was pretty funny. They laughed right up to the moment Bostic said, "I'd trade with you this minute. I just want my knee right."
Sitting around the house, he grew testy and a little rude and, sometimes, he felt alienated, as if he was on the outside of everything he once knew, looking in. He missed hanging around with the guys, his Redskin teammates. He missed feeling like he was a part of something important.
He was, after all, Jeff Bostic, the best center in the game, one of the Hogs. He'd been playing football for 18 years, since second grade. And it was plain and simple hell to ask of anyone to first stay in a hospital room for seven days and drop 22 pounds -- to 238. Then to go home wearing a cast and lie around on a sleeper couch watching rented movies on the VCR. He felt sorry for his wife Lynn, having to put up with him. And he wanted to apologize.
"She's legs for two people," he said. "Shopping, going to the bank and the post office. I want a glass of water and she's got to go up and down the steps getting it for me."
One thing's for certain, he did a lot of thinking. He figured he learned a few things about people who played the game, about what made them work so hard, and it was not difficult to articulate this knowledge. Every good athlete he knew grew up driven to win, and nothing else. Somebody finishes first, he said, and somebody finishes second. You could stand behind a lectern in a college sociology class and say, "In this society, everything is set up around winners and losers," and cover enough to last them a lifetime. It was that simple, competition was, and Bostic said he knew that meant way more than just getting along.
"You fight for what you want," he said. And he couldn't help but laugh. "My brother Joe -- he plays (guard) for the Cardinals -- he was always a lot bigger than me. You wanted to do something and you had to work for it. In 10th grade, I weighed 155. He was in the 11th and weighed 260. When you're looking at 17 months difference in age and he's 100 pounds heavier than you are, you have to be competitive or you get killed. Know what I mean?"
He said he wished he had a tape recorder in his head with a spool of tape that flipped on every time somebody asked how he felt. He would give a patented answer, only he couldn't find one. They used to ask about the busted knee, but now they want to know how he's doing, when he'll be back. It's not something he cannot think about. He feels it when he gets up in the morning and walks down to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. He feels it when he sits in the same position too long. You think of injuries: everybody in the world gets hurt but you. And now the knee.
"When I come back," Bostic said, "it'll still be in my head. It's gotta be. What I'm hoping, as soon as I take a real good shot on it, I'll know that now is the time to carry on, go about business as usual."
So he works to make it right. He works the knee three days a week, three hours a day. He rides the stationary bike for 12 to 15 minutes, pedaling up to 1,200 rpms. You can feel your lungs blow open riding one of those bikes, your blood boil. On the Cybex machine, which accommodates as much resistance as you can give it, he works through a series of leg extensions designed to strengthen and test the knee. After that, Kamau ices down his leg in the training room.
"All I think about is getting healthy again," Bostic says.
Sometimes he goes through a form running routine out on the practice field, gradually picking up speed and intensity but making sure not to hyperextend the knee. Then he works out on the Nautilus machines in the weight room, isolating each exercise on what he calls "the bad leg." It is primarily light weight-high repetition work, "with strict reps," he says, "to get the power back. I know I'll get the foundation in the weight room.
"It's a very sobering experience when you do get hurt. My knee, I hate to think anybody else could hurt his knee this bad. It was a mess. You see some guys with bad legs, trying to stretch it out a couple extra years, and you don't know how to feel about them. One thing, though, when you go down and it's bad, you start thinking maybe it's time to find something outside of the game that you enjoy doing. In football you're going to get hurt. You just figure it's all a matter of when the bell tolls."