Millard regains quickness but is waiting for contact

August 11, 1991|By Paul Domowitch | Paul Domowitch,Knight News Service

MANKATO, Minn. -- Keith Millard wants to be whole again.

He wants to be the unstoppable player he was two years ago when he ravaged quarterbacks to the tune of 18 sacks and was named the National Football League's Defensive Player of the Year.

He wants offensive linemen to get that same frantic look on their faces when they line up across from him that they got before that fateful day in the Metrodome last September when he suffered a serious knee injury.

"I want to be who I used to be," the Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle said. "I want to do what I used to do."

Ten months ago, Millard wasn't sure he would ever play again, let alone be who he used to be and do what he used to do. His career was abruptly put on hold in the fourth week of the 1990 season when he tore one ligament in his right knee and stretched another trying to leap over a blocker in a game against Tampa Bay.

"It's the reality of this game," Millard said between practices at the Vikings' Mankato State University training camp. "One minute you're at the top, the next you're back down at the bottom starting from ground zero."

The climb back to the top never is as quick as the fall from it. But Millard, 29, is determined to do it, the price be damned.

While many people associated with the Vikings, including head coach Jerry Burns, had their doubts as to whether Millard would dedicate himself to properly rehabilitating the knee, he has approached his comeback with untiring devotion.

"I'm starting from scratch," he said. "I've got to redeem myself. I've got to show these people that I can play again and be the Keith Millard of old, and maybe even a better one. I know this: Right now, I'm in the best shape I've ever been in. And my attitude is probably the best it's ever been."

A torn anterior cruciate ligament ordinarily takes about a year to completely heal. But Millard says his knee is stronger than it's ever been.

"I can do everything," he said. "I haven't lost anything as far as my quickness or my moves or anything. It's just that, when I do them, the knee's having a hard time getting acclimated to it.

"It gets a little irritated. It's not quite ready to accept that type of stress yet. I've got some swelling. And there's a lot of fluid on it. But I'm going to have to deal with that for a while."

The Vikings are keeping Millard out of most of the contact drills in camp. Despite his insistence that he is healthy, they don't want to take any chances on him reinjuring it.

"I'm keeping my fingers crossed that everything keeps going in a positive direction," Vikings defensive line coach Paul Wiggin said. "But the one thing we don't want to do, because he's a great player with great years still in front of him, is totally sacrifice the future for the here and now.

"We want to be overly protective of the here and now. So we're going to find ourselves making it seem like he's not quite as far back as he is."

Said Millard: "It's tough. I've got to hold back. This morning, I went through the individual stuff, then practice was over for me after that. I've got to sit there and watch team and one-on-one stuff. But it's early. I'm in shape and I'll stay in shape. It's just a matter of getting down there and playing football again. And that's just going to take time."

Millard's return is pivotal to the Vikings' Super Bowl hopes. With Millard in 1989, the Vikings' defense was one of the best in the NFL. It collected a league-high 71 sacks, gave up just 261.5 yards a game and held opposing ball carriers to a 3.6-yard per carry average. Last year, without Millard, the Vikings' sack total fell to 47, their yards-per-game average rose to 294.8 and the yards-per-carry average of opposing runners shot up to 4.1.

"We did a pretty good job of adjusting in his absence," Wiggin said. "But it just never was the same. It's like any team that loses a key player. It's like the Phillies losing Mike Schmidt in his heyday or something. All of a sudden, he's not there.

"He was the Defensive Player of the Year the year before. To lose that kind of player is a big blow."

After the surgery, to underscore the fact that he was starting from scratch, Millard took all of the trophies and plaques and football mementos that had decorated the den of his Redmond, Wash., home and stored them in a hall closet. They still are there.

There were some setbacks. As late as February, a Cybex test revealed that Millard still had only regained 70 percent of the strength in his knee. Three months after that, Millard tore adhesions in the knee playing basketball and had to have it drained. But he refused to get discouraged.

At the advice of Vikings trainer Fred Zamberletti, Millard did much of his running on AstroTurf to get his knee and mind reconditioned to the very surface that caused the injury.

"It was mostly for my psychological benefit," Millard said. "That's where I got injured. It's a grippy type of surface. Basically, the way I got hurt, nobody even touched me. I just got my foot caught in the turf.

"That can make you nervous. Especially when you know you weren't hit by anybody. So you've got to get used to it again. Especially considering the fact that we're going to have to play 10 of our 16 games on turf this season."

For Millard, the real test will eventually come when he plays in his first game.

"Keith isn't a slug player," Wiggin said. "He's a quickness-type player. His game is based so much on how fast he gets up[field], how his feet move. If that kind of player loses a step, he's in trouble. But what I've seen so far, the quickness is back."

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