Nine-Month Miracle Back from a career-threatening hit by Warren Sapp, tackle Chad Clifton is blasting holes for the Pack again

September 07, 2003

Late in the second quarter of an Aug. 23 preseason game at
Lambeau Field, Packers left tackle Chad Clifton fired out of his
stance and sprinted around left end, leading interference for
running back Najeh Davenport. Strongside linebacker Greg Favors
was the only Carolina player standing between Davenport and a big
gain. The 6'5", 330-pound Clifton got his hands high on Favors's
torso and pushed, knocking over the Panthers defender and
springing Davenport for a 15-yard run.

That matched Davenport's longest run of the preseason, but it was
Clifton's ability to dispatch Favors that was most heartening. It
came nine months after a vicious blindside hit by the Buccaneers'
Warren Sapp had left him with injuries--pelvis ligaments were
separated, and his back was badly sprained--that put his career
in jeopardy. Left tackles need the power to clear out defensive
ends and big linebackers, and the agility to lead sweeps and
protect their quarterbacks from speed rushers. Heading into
Sunday's season opener against the Vikings, the Packers are
surprised Clifton has returned to his preinjury form.

"I'm a little surprised myself," he says. "I'm surprised that
after everything that happened to me, there's no pain. That's
pretty amazing, because the doctors told me the kind of injury I
had was the kind they see in car accidents, not in athletics."

It happened on Nov. 24 in Tampa, during an interception return by
the Bucs; Clifton was jogging about 30 yards from the action when
Sapp ran full speed into his right shoulder. Clifton says he
never saw Sapp coming. He was on the ground for more than 10
minutes and left the field on a cart. After the game Green Bay
coach Mike Sherman, furious over what he felt was a cheap shot,
nearly came to blows with Sapp as the teams left the field.

Unable to walk because of the pain, Clifton was flown to Green
Bay in an air ambulance and then spent the next six weeks in a
hospital bed placed in his home. "We found no record of a
football player ever having this type of pelvic separation," says
Packers head trainer Pepper Burruss. "For a long time I'd see him
in a wheelchair or using a walker. Wheelchairs, walkers and
football don't exactly go together."

Clifton was optimistic. "After the first three or four days I
never thought I wouldn't play again," he says. "I just knew it
was going to be a long rehab."

Nine months long. Teammate Ahman Green joked that Clifton set a
record for off-season time spent in the trainers' room--an
average of seven hours per weekday--trying to do simple things
like stretching and pivoting. Doctors didn't make any promises,
but they believed Clifton would play again. His recovery was
delayed by arthroscopic knee surgery last January and elbow
surgery in April unrelated to Sapp's hit.

Finally, in July, he was able to run full speed and cut with
little pain. Clifton has progressed to a point where Sherman can
call any play confident that Clifton will be able to handle his
assignment. The only question is whether he will be durable
enough to last 16 games, including a Nov. 16 rematch with Sapp
and the Bucs in Tampa.

The mild-mannered Clifton says he does not hold a grudge against
Sapp. "I never have, not from Day One," he says. "You see hits
like that every week in the NFL. When you go on the field, you
assume that risk, so I don't need an apology from him."

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Doctors said Clifton's pelvic injury in November was more like that from a car crash. COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES (INSET) [See caption above]
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