A month ago, the pain had become almost unbearable for Virginia inside linebacker Angelo Crowell. At times he could barely walk because of the constant throbbing in his knees, brought on by a pair of sprained medial collateral ligaments.
"Every time I moved, I just wanted to scream," Crowell said. "There was one point where I couldn't even take it. I went out after a game, just to get something to eat, and I said, 'Man, take me back home so I can just lie down.' It was excruciating pain."
Crowell, of course, didn't miss a game. When he hurt his left knee at Wake Forest on Sept. 28, he made a brief trip to the locker room and then returned to the field. Two weeks later, he injured the other knee in the first quarter against Clemson and watched the rest of the game from the sideline. That led Virginia Coach Al Groh to expect Crowell would sit out the next game against North Carolina.
But this is a senior co-captain, a 6-foot-1, 235-pound pro prospect whose teammates nicknamed him "Maximus" because he is as tough as the protagonist in his favorite movie, "Gladiator." Crowell started against North Carolina and helped the Cavaliers (7-4, 5-2 ACC) to a 37-27 win.
"I didn't think he was going to play on Friday night," Groh said after the game. "He played with two [MCL injuries when] most players don't play with one. But he wanted to play in the game and help his team win, which he did."
Statistically, Crowell didn't have his most productive game of the season, but he impressed Tar Heels Coach John Bunting, who as an NFL linebacker in 1978 worked through an even more serious knee injury.
"He's been a tough, physical player in the two years that we've played against Virginia," Bunting said. "I watched him [in pregame warmups] and there was no doubt in my mind that he had all the determination in the world to go out there and play the best ballgame that he could under the circumstances. I think that guy has got a great future at the next level."
Crowell has been pointed in that direction since 1999, when he played in every game as an 18-year-old freshman. Last season he made 144 tackles, a school record. This season his numbers are almost as good, despite injuries that Groh said have robbed Crowell of some speed. Heading into Saturday's game against No. 18 Maryland (9-2, 5-1), he has 119 tackles -- first on the team and seventh in the ACC -- and has forced three fumbles. He is on pace for four fewer tackles than last year, which would give him 405 career tackles, third-best on Virginia's all-time list.
Crowell said he is about 80-85 percent now, eight weeks after the first knee injury. His recovery process has been painful and frustrating, in part because he had never dealt with any injury more severe than the usual aches and bruises associated with playing linebacker. Suddenly he felt like an old man, barely able to bend his knees when he woke up in the morning.
"It was just something I had to battle through every morning," Crowell said. "Just kept pushing myself -- I've got to get through this, I've got to get through this. So I was getting treatment three, four times a day, trying to get back on the field."
He sat out a few practices, finding it extremely uncomfortable to watch while other people played. But his teammates knew he would be out there when game day arrived.
"I said, 'He's walking, so he's going to play,' " said right guard Elton Brown, who could miss this Saturday's game because of an ankle injury. "That's the type of person he is."
"He's a gladiator," defensive end Chris Canty said. "He goes out there and he puts it on the line. All of us are gladiators, but he's the one we follow into battle."