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Finder on the Web: Carnell Lake fighting back the pain to resume his football career

Monday, November 13, 2000

By Chuck Finder, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

JACKSONVILLE -- The pain. Carnell Lake remembers the pain.

Trying to run, turn or backpedal on that throbbing left foot made his eyes well with tears. Wearing spikes in practice caused so much agony, he requested special dispensation from steely Jaguars Coach Tom Coughlin so he could don a pair of less painful sneakers. It got so bad, he had to ask his wife to tuck their daughter into bed when the 4-year-old awoke at night, a fatherly duty he couldn't summon the resolve to do.


The pain.

And it all started in Pittsburgh.

Remember 1998? The high-ankle sprain that afflicted the then-Steelers free safety with the Pro Bowl portfolio? It was, he believes, the same injury that changed his life last season in Jacksonville and caused him to have three surgeries since spring. It was, he believes, the same injury that erased him from this season that began with grand plans for the Jaguars.

Last spring, Jacksonville doctors determined what hobbled Lake for so long was a stress fracture in the navicular bone. "Which," he pointed out, "is real close to the ankle.

Carnell Lake

"I believe it started in Pittsburgh, because it was the same feeling," he added, not so much laying blame as peeling back the layers of frustration and pain. "The term up there was 'high ankle sprain.' Came down here, and it was still hurting the same way. I thought I was going crazy, because no one could tell me what was wrong with it. No one could detect it."

Someone did last spring. Doctors detected and tried to whip it. In March, they operated. In May, in a procedure that Jaguars officials didn't disclose until much later, doctors operated again.

Ever the workout warrior, known to ride a stationary bike or sweat out a treadmill climb after practices or games, Lake reported to Jaguars training camp in July fully expecting to battle through any remaining agony. Couldn't do it. "That was the kind of pain and suffering I didn't want to go through next year."

Doctors prescribed a bone graft.

Lake consented, excused himself from the 2000 season and reported back to the operating room.

In this third operation, doctors took a piece of Lake's hip and grafted it to the throbbing left foot. He traded more pain for future considerations: Continuing his Hall-of-Fame-worthy career, vying one last time or two for a Super Bowl ring. He is 33 and introspective.

This, after all, is a guy whom I once spotted with an open accounting book in his Steelers stall. The millionaire safety came to admit that he was taking a night class at Duquesne University. Got to think about life after the career, he explained then.

There existed some of the same wonders around One Stadium Place, the Jaguars' Alltel Stadium headquarters. Folks questioned whether the veteran free safety would return from this injury and ever play in the NFL again.

Lake, the workout warrior, already is strenuously rehabbing at his home in Los Angeles and in Jacksonville.

"Yeah, it's weird, not playing," he said Sunday outside the Jaguars' locker room, after watching his teammates lose a seventh time this season -- and sixth in their past seven games (this by 28-21 to Seattle) -- while wearing slacks, a white golf shirt, sunglasses and discontented look.

"I'm just glad I went this long without an injury like this."

In '96, he missed three games because of an ligament injury, then returned for the Steelers playoffs. In '93, he missed two games because of an ankle sprain. In '89, his rookie season, he missed the regular-season finale because of a bruised chest, then returned for the playoffs. In '98, he missed parts of two games and even wound up in a cast on that diagnosed high ankle sprain, but he never missed a start. Other than that, the rest of his 11 NFL seasons were remarkable 16-game marathons, start to finish.

At work: Carnell and fellow Jaguars safety Donovan Darius put the wrap on Titans running back Eddie George in a January game against Tennessee in Jacksonville. (Mark Humphrey, AP Photo)

For so long it was Carnell Lake and Darren Perry, Darren Perry and Carnell Lake. They formed the last line of a staunch Steelers defense. The safeties provided durability, stability. It was still a mistake for the Steelers to let Lake go in free agency before the 1999 season.

True, his salary-cap hit would have been sizable, but the man means so much to a defense. He can stop the run. He can cover, something the Steelers used to their advantage often by switching him to cornerback when injuries arose. He can blitz, evidenced by 18.5 sacks with the Steelers that rank him among the top 20 all-time in a sack-happy franchise. He can supply a formidable presence on the field, in the locker room, in the community. What's not to like?

Travis Davis, for one. Scott Shields wasn't so hot at free safety, either. Brent Alexander, a Free-Agent Lite expense these Steelers can afford, has come to play the position rather nicely. But imagine Lake patrolling the secondary for this current Steelers defense. Imagine him making enough of an impact to change the outcomes of those losses to Philadelphia, Cleveland, maybe even Tennessee twice.

Who knows, he might be available this winter. Jaguars officials so primed their roster for this upcoming Super Bowl across Florida, a four-hour drive southwest in Tampa, that their salary cap projects to be $30 million over budget for 2001. Some Jacksonville veterans will have to go.

A rehabbing 33-year-old coming off three surgeries within six months figures to look appealing when the salary-cap Turk comes to cutting.

While 2000 has been no day at Neptune Beach for the injury-depleted Jaguars and Lake, he could smile at the mention of the Steelers' five-game winning streak. "You know, it was surprising," said Lake, who briefly considered paying his own way to watch Sunday's Jaguars-Steelers tilt at Three Rivers Stadium (Jacksonville doesn't travel its injured-reserve players). "I'm not there, so I'm not able to see what's going on behind closed doors. But from the outside ... you think they're as low as they can get, and they come roaring back. Got a shot at the playoffs."

Roaring? Playoffs? Those notions have been lost on the Jaguars and Lake this season.

That's pain, too.

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