Stephen Alexander stood on the sideline and watched yesterday as the Washington Redskins participated in the first practice of their bye week at Redskin Park. He still was sore from the badly bruised lower back he suffered during Sunday's triumph over the Carolina Panthers, but the starting tight end felt like the luckiest man on the field.
Alexander experienced a football nightmare Sunday. He received an inadvertent knee to his back from Panthers safety Mike Minter on an incomplete pass early in the fourth quarter. The play left Alexander lying on the turf at Redskins Stadium, temporarily unable to move his legs. At that point, he couldn't be certain about the "temporarily" part.
"I was scared," Alexander said yesterday. "I had some numbness in my legs and wasn't able to move them. I didn't know what was wrong. I'd never experienced anything like it. It was obviously serious. I didn't know what to expect. You hear it all the time, that you never know when it's going to be your last play, and you see it happen all the time. You just say, 'It's never going to happen to me.' It did happen to me, and I was scared. But everything's turned out okay, and I'm in high spirits now and fortunate I'm still playing."
The team's trainers and other medical personnel rushed to Alexander's side moments after the play, and minutes later placed him on a backboard and drove him off the field on a cart. Doctors performed a series of X-rays and neurological tests at the stadium. If ominous signs show up in such a situation, the player is taken by helicopter to a nearby hospital.
That was not necessary Sunday. Doctors determined that Alexander had not suffered a serious spine injury, so he showered and dressed in the locker room, and headed home.
He said yesterday there's "no question" in his mind that he'll play when the Redskins face the Arizona Cardinals in Phoenix in 10 days. Club officials offered to give him the entire week off from strenuous activity, but he's not certain whether he'll take them up on the offer. He'd like to do some running by Friday, Alexander said.
"It feels good," he said. "I'm still a little sore. But I'm up and about. It feels good to be moving around."
The Redskins got a similar scare during a game last season, when wide receiver Michael Westbrook suffered a herniated disk in his neck that required offseason surgery. Westbrook said yesterday he flashed back to his injury when he watched Alexander on Sunday.
"That was the first time I thought about it since it happened to me," Westbrook said. "It was scary. It wasn't as scary to me when it happened to me as it was when it happened to Stephen."
Said quarterback Brad Johnson, who is in his first season with the team: "It's frightening. It was good to see him walk. I've seen that a lot on TV. It was the first time I'd ever seen it in person."
NFL players know the stories of Darryl Stingley, Mike Utley, Dennis Byrd and Reggie Brown, who all suffered severe injuries during their playing careers. But Alexander said he never had been on the field for such a scare as a player until Westbrook's injury last season. He suffered a broken tailbone as a kid, he said, when he and some friends were out toilet-papering a house as a prank and the pickup truck in which they were riding took a nasty hop.
"I thought that's what happened this time," Alexander said.
But things got more frightening when his right leg went numb, and he discovered he couldn't move either leg. He wanted to try to stand while he still was on the field, he said, but the trainers and doctors wouldn't allow him to do so. He remained strapped to the backboard until doctors had completed X-rays, he said. That meant he had to endure 15 to 20 minutes of wondering and worrying.
"I was trying to get up and move my arms and everything," Alexander said. "My right leg was numb, but I had trouble moving both of them.
"By the time I was on the cart, it started coming back to me a little bit. But I still had trouble bending my legs. By the time I was finished with the X-rays, I was able to get up. That's the one thing I wanted to do. I kept saying, 'Let me get up.' I wanted to see if I could do it, just to get that behind me. They wouldn't let me, so they obviously thought it was something a little more serious. By the time I was finished with the X-rays and everything, I still had a lot of pain and there was some swelling, but all the numbness was gone."
The Redskins believe that Alexander, 23, soon will be a Pro Bowl player. The second-year pro has impressed those at Redskin Park with his toughness as well as his ability, and he said there won't be a mental hurdle for him to overcome once he returns to the field.
"It was a freak accident," Alexander said. "You've just got to continue to go out and do what you're doing. You can't be scared."
Alexander was joined on the sideline yesterday by several players with relatively minor injuries--guard Tre Johnson (sprained knee ligament), safety Sam Shade (strained hamstring) and linebackers Eddie Mason (strained hamstring) and Malcolm Hamilton (herniated disk in his back). Veteran cornerback Darrell Green was given the day off, and Brad Johnson split the snaps with backups Rodney Peete and Casey Weldon.
Redskins officials said they probably won't know until late next week whether tight end James Jenkins, who underwent arthroscopic knee surgery on Monday, will be able to play against Arizona.