Tackling toughest assignment

Ravens: Anthony Poindexter's chances at being a top draft pick were shattered along with his knee, but his faith in a comeback has brought him a chance.

May 23, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,SUN COLUMNIST

North Carolina State receiver Chris Coleman caught a pass near the sideline, and Virginia safety Anthony Poindexter slowed down, figuring the play was headed out of bounds.

"He's blown up every pile he's seen in his life," Virginia defensive coordinator Rick Lantz said. "This one time, he didn't."

Coleman eluded Poindexter's teammate, cornerback Tim Spruill, and turned the play back upfield, full speed.

Less than six minutes remained in the fourth quarter.

And Poindexter, a likely Top 15 draft pick, was about to suffer an injury that would drop him to the Ravens in the seventh round of the draft, cost him millions and jeopardize his career.

Poindexter set himself. Spruill and teammate Patrick Kerney converged on the receiver. The collective weight of the three slammed into Poindexter's leg, bending it backward, knocking him to the ground. "I knew my career at Virginia was over," Poindexter said.

He is standing now outside the Ravens' training complex at Owings Mills, standing in brilliant sunshine, staring out at a field on which he cannot yet practice, a field on which he might never be the same.

But here's the thing about Anthony Poindexter:

He's smiling as if nothing has happened, as if he will still be a star.

"Sometimes at night, when I'm all alone, I'll think about, `What if?' There are a lot of, `What ifs?' " Poindexter said. "But I can't really pout about it. I've played football a long time. This is my first major injury. I've been blessed."

Poindexter, 6 feet and 220 pounds, was considered the best safety in the country before he tore three of the four major ligaments in his left knee. And yes, he looks forward to a day when he will be considered one of the best safeties in the NFL.

Even on the day he was hurt, it was difficult to keep him down.

"Normally, when a guy gets hit like that, he lies on the field screaming. He got back up, pushed the knee in to reduce the dislocation and walked off the field," Lantz said.

"The year before, he twisted his ankle. I thought it was the same thing. Then he threw his helmet down and said, `I blew out my freakin' knee!' "

Lantz recalled looking for Poindexter in the training room after the game. He found him sitting on a cart outside, speaking with North Carolina State receiver Torry Holt and others, saying, `Don't worry. I'll be back.' "

When you talk to him now, it's not like talking to a player who underwent reconstructive knee surgery only seven months ago.

It's like talking to Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis, a player who knows how good he is, and can't wait to show it.

"I spent some time with him at the combine," said Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' vice president of player personnel. "I saw a bright-eyed youngster that didn't feel his injury was a setback.

"He wasn't sitting there mourning. He was upbeat. He had something about him that I thought was engaging."

So here's Poindexter now, a rookie who can't run, can't hit, can't do much of anything really, saying, "If anyone can get it back, I'm going to get it back."

And here's Lantz, his old coordinator, echoing those sentiments as he speaks excitedly into his car phone about his two-time, first-team All-American.

"I know it's a trite phrase, but he has one of those indomitable spirits," Lantz said. "His attitude is absolutely fantastic."

Started strong

Newsome first saw Poindexter while scouting Virginia linebackers James Farrior and Jamie Sharper for the 1997 draft.

"They had this sophomore running around making plays all over the place," Newsome said. "I said, `Who is this guy?' "

Sharper, the Ravens' second-round pick in '97, missed two games his junior year, and Poindexter, then a freshman, replaced him at outside linebacker.

All he did was lead the Cavaliers with 10 tackles against Georgia Tech in his first career start, and again with 15 the next week in Virginia's first-ever victory at Clemson.

He nearly entered the draft after his junior year, but returned to school to improve his NFL stock and complete his degree in anthropology.

Little did he know what would happen against N.C. State.

"I thought I had played the first seven games like a Top 15 pick, maybe a Top 10," Poindexter said.

The injury changed everything.

Virginia team physician Frank McCue performed 4 1/2 hours of reconstructive surgery on Poindexter's knee last Nov. 6, and the San Francisco 49ers' Michael Dilling- ham performed further arthroscopic surgery March 16.

In between operations, Poindexter spent 2 1/2 months in the Bay area working with Lisa Giannone, the physical therapist who helped rehabilitate Jerry Rice from a similar injury.

Poindexter is represented by Rice's agent, Jim Steiner.

"I did a lot of stuff I probably shouldn't have been doing," Poindexter said with a smile, but he sent a videotape of his workouts, including some with Rice, to all 31 NFL teams.

Still, he wound up as the 216th player selected.

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