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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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No longer shouldering a secret
Bucs CB Alan Zemaitis tried to shrug off an injury. It cost him a year.
By STEPHEN F. HOLDER
Published May 30, 2007
Alan Zemaitis (21) stretches before Tampa Bay Buccaneers practice Thursday morning at Raymond James Stadium.
[Times photo: Brendan Fitterer]
Bucs cornerback Alan Zemaitis stretches during training camp at Disney's Wide World of Sports last year in Lake Buena Vista.
TAMPA -- Alan Zemaitis was the Bucs' fourth-round draft pick one year ago, but 2007 might as well be his rookie season.
Because the next time he takes the field for the Buccaneers will be his first.
Turns out it was more than inexperience and a lot of competition at cornerback that kept Zemaitis off the field last season. He says the primary reason can be traced to a game against Michigan during his senior season at Penn State when, in October 2005, he tore his labrum in his right shoulder.
Zemaitis played hurt the rest of that season. But the joint injury created a perplexing pre-draft dilemma for the first-team All-Big Ten selection: have the shoulder surgically repaired, or let it heal and hope for the best.
"I knew I couldn't get it fixed," Zemaitis said. "There wasn't a big enough window for me to go ahead and get the operation done before the draft. It did mess me up a little bit on draft day, but if I would have had the surgery, I might not have even gotten drafted."
Surgery would have put him out of action during the critical months before the draft, when prospects are scrutinized like cattle at an auction. Zemaitis, probably correctly, figured a one-armed cornerback would fall off most teams' draft boards.
It seemed the plan paid off when Zemaitis, 24, became the 122nd overall selection. But when he began participating in the Bucs' summer workouts last year and discovered he wasn't totally healed, Zemaitis finally experienced the repercussions of his decision.
So, too, did the surprised Bucs.
"That definitely didn't help him," defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. "I didn't realize it (was a serious issue) either until we got going."
Soon, 2006 became a series of frustrating moments. Sundays were particularly exasperating. Most weeks, Zemaitis was on the inactive list, watching games in street clothes. Even a season-ending foot injury suffered by starting cornerback Brian Kelly did little to move Zemaitis closer to playing. He became the only member of the rookie class to make the final roster but not appear in a game.
"The hardest part was just knowing that the question would be, could I play physical, when I know damn well that's how I got here," Zemaitis said. "There are guys who can cover better than me and guys who might be smarter than me. But when it comes to actually working and (grinding) it out, I feel like that's where I have the advantage. But not having one of my limbs out there was difficult."
Zemaitis finally had the injury repaired, and the Bucs placed him on injured reserve in December. Now he's on the road back and the ride has been significantly smoother.
He has the eagerness of a rookie but the savvy of a player who has been learning Tampa Bay's intricate defense for a year. He can again lift weights freely to develop upper-body strength. And he continues to learn, citing the return of defensive backs coach Raheem Morris to the organization as a key to his development. "With Raheem coming in, I learn more about the position in two days than I have in my whole life," Zemaitis said.
More than anything, Zemaitis wants to see what he can do given the opportunity to play. The Bucs also would like to learn a little about him after investing the draft pick.
"I really want to get him a good look this season," Kiffin said. "He's not a first-round draft pick, but there's really been a lot of guys in the fourth, fifth, sixth rounds who have really turned out to be pretty good. But right now he's showing the attitude that he really wants to do it. I don't know if he has missed a day of the offseason."
The Bucs have promised Zemaitis nothing. They have Kelly back in the lineup, Phillip Buchanon signed a two-year extension and Torrie Cox is still on board. But at least this season, with both arms in working order, it seems Zemaitis will finally have a fair fight.
"This year, " he said, "I'm healthy, I feel good and I'm ready."