Broken But Unbowed

Since he shattered his leg in the Super Bowl, Tim Krumrie has survived a nightmare
March 20, 1989

The dreams began when Cincinnati Bengal nosetackle Tim Krumrie returned to his off-season home in Eau Claire, Wis., to recuperate from surgery on his left leg, which he had broken in Super Bowl XXIII. Every night for two weeks, he experienced one of three dreams. In the first, Krumrie and two other players, both good friends of his—Los Angeles Raider linebacker Matt Millen and former Bengal linebacker Glenn Cameron—took on the Mondovi Buffaloes, Krumrie's high school team. "Just the three of us against 11 of them," says Krumrie. shaking his head in disbelief. In another. Krumrie saw himself running on the hilly roads outside Eau Claire. In the third, he was attempting to compete in cross-country ski races. "I'd forget to bring my skis every time," says Krumrie.

At the end of each dream he would thrust a hand under the sheet, grab his left leg and gently shake it to remind himself that it was broken in three places. "I think I'm losing my mind," he whispered to his wife, Cheryl, after one of the dreams woke him up one night. "Can you go nuts knowing you're going nuts?"

Dr. Michael Welch, a team orthopedist who assisted in Krumrie's surgery, assured him that the dreams were a normal reaction to a traumatic injury. Krumrie was relieved, but the dreams continued. On Feb. 21, the day he began riding an exercise bicycle, they stopped. "When I broke my leg, it was no longer a part of me," says Krumrie. "Subconsciously it had broken off from my body. When I could exercise, I was becoming whole again. In my mind I was getting closer to being myself."

The nightmarish moment that psychologically separated Krumrie's leg from the rest of him came on the first play of the San Francisco 49ers' second offensive series in the Super Bowl. With 8:16 remaining in the first quarter, the scored tied 0-0 and San Francisco on its own three-yard line, running back Roger Craig took a handoff and barreled around right end. Krumrie grabbed 49er center Randy Cross and tossed him away from the play. Then he went after Craig, who had turned upfield. "I thought I had a good angle," says Krumrie. "My adrenaline was really flowing. I pushed off my left leg—I was trying to fly—and I heard a crack, like a dry stick snapping. I said to myself. 'That wasn't me.' There wasn't any pain. I figured it was pads or helmets hitting. I stepped on my right foot and came back down on my left, and I heard another loud crunch. My momentum carried me. I made the tackle."

When he hit the ground, Krumrie noticed his left leg was "kinked out" at the calf. Only then did he realize it was broken. "My first thought," he says, "was, O.K., how am I going to play with a broken leg?" In Section 116 of Miami's Joe Robbie Stadium, Cheryl tried to stay cool. She thought her husband had been knocked unconscious. "I kept thinking, He'll get up," Cheryl says. "His famous words are 'They'll have to carry me off the field to get me out of the game.' " When he didn't get up, Cheryl started to panic. Jim Rose, Tim's football coach at Mondovi High, squirmed uneasily in the seat beside her. "Coach, he's down too long," said Cheryl. "Something's wrong. You know he never stays down unless he's hurt bad."

The television screens in the end zones showed a gruesome, slow-motion replay of Krumrie injuring himself—and that is literally what he did, for no one else made significant contact with his leg on the fateful play. As Krumrie planted his left foot, his lateral momentum generated enormous torque on the bones of his lower leg, causing what orthopedists call a "high-energy fracture." Watching the replay, 75,179 fans saw the leg turn almost 180 degrees as Krumrie fell to the ground. They let out a gasp. Cheryl began to sob. Rose, who also was in tears, put his arms around her.

"The replay took my breath away," says Rose. "Our entire section [which was filled with Bengal families] got quiet. A number of people were crying. It was something I don't ever want to go through again." Kelly Krumrie, 4, sprang to her feet and shouted, "You dummy 49ers. Why did you do that to my daddy?"

Cheryl and Kelly rushed downstairs and arrived in the Bengal locker room as Tim was being told what his X-rays showed—two bones broken, one in two places.

When Cheryl and Kelly left, Dr. Robert Heidt Jr., the Bengals' chief orthopedic surgeon, told Tim that the leg needed to be set but that it would take several minutes for the paramedics to get morphine, with which to deaden the pain, from their van. "If it's going to take that long," replied Krumrie, "just set the damn thing."

"There'll be a lot of pain," said Heidt.

"What did the cowboys do?" said Krumrie. "Give me a bullet."

Krumrie didn't brace himself for what happened next. "I didn't even close my eyes," he says. "I watched them do it. I accepted the challenge. In a way, I think I was punishing myself for breaking the leg."

After the leg was placed in a temporary cast from hip to toe, Krumrie begged the doctors to let him join his teammates on the sideline. "Put me in a wheelchair," he said. "It's my party. I will not leave."

Heidt was worried about the leg swelling, which could lead to permanent nerve or muscle damage. He proposed a compromise: If Krumrie would promise to lie quietly on a cot, he could watch the game in the locker room on a portable black-and-white TV. Fair enough, Krumrie said. Then he ordered a couple of beers. Early in the fourth quarter, however, Heidt ordered Krumrie to be taken to Mercy Hospital by ambulance in order to avoid being delayed by postgame traffic.

Before breaking his leg, Krumrie had been an iron man. In 16 years of football—210 games—starting in junior high school, he had never been severely injured. He regularly yanked dislocated fingers into place while standing in the Cincinnati huddle, and he says he had never taken a painkilling injection. Bengal fans call him King of the Jungle, and he has earned that title the hard way.

As a 10th-round draft choice out of Wisconsin in 1983, he was a long shot to make it in the NFL. But the work ethic he learned on his family's dairy farm near Mondovi helped turn Krumrie into the best nosetackle in football and the leader of the Cincinnati defense. Last season he made 152 tackles, more than any other lineman in the league.

Krumrie spent the night of the Super Bowl, which the Bengals lost 20-16 in the final minutes, at the hospital. He was in agony. "I felt like my heart was pumping in the middle of my leg," he says. "I could feel the blood rushing through it. My leg got very warm, and there was a steady ache. I had never felt anything like it.

"I asked the nurse to give me a shot for the pain, and 15 minutes later I pushed the button again. The shot wasn't doing anything. She said that was all she could give me until the morning. I didn't sleep a bit."

Krumrie returned to Cincinnati the day after the game on the team plane. An ambulance took him to the tarmac, where he was transferred on a stretcher to an airline food-service truck and then lifted through one of the plane's side doors into the first-class section. Upon arriving in Cincinnati, he was taken to Christ Hospital.

Before he underwent surgery the next morning, he asked Heidt and Welch about his chances of ever again being the player he had been before the injury. They told him his injury could have been much worse: He had not suffered a compound fracture, meaning the broken bones had not punctured the skin, so there was no danger of infection. In addition, no tendons or joints had been seriously damaged. "I told them my career was in their hands," says Krumrie, "and that if they screwed up they'd have me to answer to."

During the three-hour operation, Heidt and Welch hammered a 15-inch-long, ½-inch-diameter stainless-steel rod down the middle of the tibia, the large bone in the lower leg, which had been broken in two places in the shin area. Next, they secured the rod with four screws, two just below the kneecap and two above the ankle. The rod, which will remain in place for 18 months, reinforces the tibia as it heals. The fibula, the smaller bone that runs beside the tibia, didn't require surgical attention.

"I can't believe it hurts so much," Tim told Cheryl a day later, when he stood on crutches for the first time. The next morning Cheryl bathed him on his hospital bed. When she finished, she inadvertently dropped the towel on Tim's uneaten breakfast. "We both started laughing," says Cheryl, "and we laughed so hard that we started to cry. I guess we both needed to release our tension."

Says Krumrie of his fears, "My career is my legs. My position is in jeopardy. You know what they do to racehorses."

His spirits were lifted by an outpouring of sympathy from strangers, who sent him 2,000 letters. One woman sent him a huge bedpan filled with cactus plants. On the card she wrote, "O.K., tough guy, try this without anesthesia." At various times more than 150 people sneaked past the check-in desk in the hospital lobby; they were stopped by security guards near Krumrie's room on the eighth floor. Student nurses clamored for his autograph.

Krumrie was released from the hospital on Feb. 6. In the month since his recurring dreams stopped, life in Eau Claire has been rather dull. On weekday mornings there is physical therapy. Three times a week, starting at 6 a.m., he "runs" in a local pool, floating by means of a life vest as he strides in 10 feet of water. Every weekday at 9 a.m., Tom Morgan of Northwoods Therapy Associates massages Krumrie's calf, stretching his Achilles tendon. At first Morgan spent two hours kneading the leg, which was an ugly yellow, black and blue. Now the kneading takes only an hour, and the skin looks normal. Morgan manipulates the ankle to keep it from becoming stiff and then ices the leg. After that, Krumrie slips into an air-compression boot to inhibit the swelling further.

He spends his afternoons managing his beer distributorship. In a few weeks he expects to be back riding the trucks, delivering kegs. "At first I felt helpless," says Krumrie. "Kelly had to get my clothes out, put them by the side of the bed and help me get dressed."

Now he has to rein himself in. Two weeks ago he hobbled through the snow to watch the American Birkebeiner cross-country ski race in Hayward, Wis. Afterward he wanted to boogie in the lodge, but he resisted the urge.

The leg is X-rayed every Monday, and seeing the bones heal gives Krumrie peace of mind. Still, at the end of last week he could put only 60 pounds of weight on his left leg, and he probably won't walk without crutches until April. A tibia fracture usually takes four to six months to heal, which means Krumrie could be ready for training camp in July.

He has different kinds of dreams these days. "I visualize about football constantly," he says. "When I'm riding the exercise bike, I'm seeing blocking schemes. Any other March, I'd just be taking a break from football. I wouldn't think about it at all. But this year is different. I'm looking forward to healing. I can't wait to play again."

PHOTOTONY TOMSICAfter the leg went (above), Krumrie was taken to the locker room but nixed morphine. PHOTOJOHN BIEVER[See caption above.] PHOTOJIM CALLAWAY/CINCINNATI ENQUIRERKrumrie spent a sleepless night in a Miami hospital before heading to Cincy for surgery. PHOTOROB KINMONTHAs soon as he was well enough to ride his exercise bike, the crazy dreams stopped. PHOTOROB KINMONTHAt first, Krumrie, who now works out several hours a day, needed Kelly to help him dress.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)