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For Boulware, it's agony of victory
By JOHN ROMANO
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 13, 2001
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Begin with the pain. The white-hot fever that stretches from the shoulder and goes straight down when the right arm is extended more than a few inches. The throbbing that will continue for the next three hours no matter what you try to do to protect it.
Continue with the fear. This is worse, of course. The knowledge that you are putting your career on the line just by walking on the field. Understanding that NFL contracts are not guaranteed and that you are risking millions of dollars because you refuse to stop playing.
This was Peter Boulware's 1999 season. His shoulder was separated in a summer minicamp and his season was derailed before it began. Except Boulware did not sit. He played every game. Played with a harness on his shoulder that essentially made him a one-armed player. Or, in his case, a one-armed bandit with 10 sacks and a second trip to the Pro Bowl.
Baltimore's defense jumped to No. 2 in the NFL last season and Boulware's refusal to take a seat had much to do with that ascension.
"He was a true warrior," Ravens defensive end Michael McCrary said. "Ninety-nine percent of the people in this league would have went ahead and had surgery with that injury. I don't know many people who would have played a season with one arm. And for him to accumulate those type of statistics and be a factor is amazing. That's the only word to describe what he did last year.
"If he can go through that, he can go through anything."
McCrary's theory is being tested this season.
Baltimore has a record-setting defense and a spot in Sunday's AFC Championship Game against Oakland. Linebacker Ray Lewis is the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Rod Woodson is going to another Pro Bowl, Sam Adams has resurrected his reputation. And Boulware is barely noticed.
All should be well in Boulware's world, except he is coming off his worst season statistically.
He relented and had off-season shoulder surgery, but rehabilitation was slow. He was barely able to practice during training camp.
"I started off slow. I was still dealing with the injury and trying to get myself right. I'm getting back to where I used to be, but I still need to get better," Boulware said. "Physically, I was healed but I was still weak. I could only bench press 215 pounds. I'm supposed to be in the high 300s.
"But more than that, I had to get myself right in my head. Mentally, I was thinking, "Is this thing really healthy?' It took me a long time to work through the thought that I wasn't going to hurt myself."
After 10 sacks a season through his first three years, Boulware slipped to seven sacks in 2000. And they came mostly in bunches. Two against the Jaguars, two against the Browns, two more against the Jaguars.
From the outside, the temptation was to assume the worst. The NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1997 after being taken with the No. 4 pick out of Florida State, Boulware was looking like an heir apparent to Derrick Thomas as the top rushing linebacker in the league. But the slip in production had people wondering if the shoulder injury was going to be his downfall.
Boulware admits there were times early on when he wondered about his future, but is now sure he did the right thing by delaying surgery.
"My family wanted me to give it up and have surgery. They said it wasn't worth what I was going through. They were just looking out for my safety," Boulware said. "I prayed about it and said, "Lord show me what to do.' And I felt, in my heart of hearts, it felt like the Lord was telling me to play and he'd make a way for me to get through it.
"You may call me crazy now, but I wouldn't give up that season for anything. It taught me some things about myself. I was facing an impossible situation and I was still able to overcome it. Those are lessons in life that you cannot learn without adversity."
The slow rehabilitation from shoulder surgery undoubtedly played a role in Boulware's declining numbers, but it was not the only factor.
Defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis challenged his players to sacrifice personal goals and statistics this season for the good of the team. That meant cutting down on the freelancing and making sure players covered each other's backs. The result was the fewest points given up during a 16-game regular season and a shot at the Super Bowl.
"I had to learn to be unselfish. My thing coming out of college was rushing the quarterback. I wanted the sacks," Boulware said. "I realized if we were going to win, I needed to make sacrifices. I needed to be a real linebacker. I had to play the run and help the team. And now we're winning. That's the most satisfying thing. I'd make that trade-off any time."
He might even give his right arm for that.
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