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Compiled by SHARON GINN
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 3, 2000
Jay Mize figured this was his year. He had spent two seasons as a backup free safety, one as a part-time starter, and had had shoulder pain for as long as he could remember. But surgeries had fixed his shoulders, and the South Florida coaches had tinkered with the lineup to get him the starting job he had earned.
"My shoulders haven't felt this good since pee wee ball," he said. "I was like, "Wow, man, I'm going to be a totally different player.' "
Then his neck stiffened up in April. And stayed that way.
In July, an MRI revealed a herniated disc in his neck. He was told he couldn't play until the stiffness, and the tingling in his left thumb, disappeared. He waited and waited, and finally, after missing the season opener, got tired of waiting. He told team doctors he felt fine and played Game 2 at Kentucky.
Three weeks later, in USF's 20-10 victory over Troy State on Sept. 30, Mize made one of his signature big hits in the fourth quarter. Jubilation was quickly replaced by the realization that his left arm had gone numb.
"After that, the tingling and the numbness got worse, the burning was there, and it's still there," Mize said.
Mize's football career ended on that play (though he wasn't ready to admit it; doctors had to take his helmet away to keep him out of the game). More than a month later, the news finally is sinking in. But that doesn't make it easier.
"They told me that nerve that I pounded on, every hit you're going to pound on that nerve," Mize said. "It could be the next one that I hit the nerve just right and my arm becomes numb for good. I could have a limp arm all my life. . . . Every hit, I'm just talking my chances.
"I graduate in December. I'm not going to be playing football after this. The last four weeks of my life have been hell."
By coincidence, two other Bulls have suffered similar fates this season. Offensive lineman Sean Cassese's career ended in the preseason after a herniated disc was discovered. Then linebacker Vassay Marc, who had developed into an NFL prospect, was felled by the same injury, also against Troy State. His status still is uncertain, but pro prospects appear dim.
"I feel so bad for him," Mize said. "He definitely had plans to play in the NFL. He had a shot, and this just came out of nowhere. Mine's been bothering me since April, so I've learned how to deal with it. His just snuck up on him. One hit, one game, and it's over.
"It doesn't make it any easier for either one of us. We were looking to have a big year and it got cut short."
0 -- Interceptions thrown by Western Kentucky quarterbacks this season, tops in all of Division I.
7 -- Interceptions grabbed by Bulls players this season.
1 -- Team (Western Kentucky) the Bulls have played each of their four years of existence.
2 -- Teams (Western Kentucky and Georgia Southern) that have clinched I-AA playoff berths.
116 -- Consecutive games the Hilltoppers have rushed for 100 yards or more, a streak dating back to 1989.
According to NCAA rules, USF's 21-13 victory over Connecticut does count as its first Division I-A win. Though the Huskies,like the Bulls, are in a transitional year to I-A status -- they can't go to a bowl but are using too many scholarships to be allowed in the I-AA playoffs -- opponents may count them as a I-A team to meet scheduling requirements. Thus all opponents -- USF included -- may count Connecticut as a I-A team.
"As far as I'm concerned, our closest rival is Southern Miss. That's what we're driving toward. . . . I don't even know if I'll start talking about rivalries until we get into Conference USA." -- Jim Leavitt, USF coach, when asked whether he considered Western Kentucky -- an opponent since the 1997 inaugural season -- a rival.
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