Move over Coach Bryant

The story has long since become a part of Crimson Tide tradition. How in 1935, senior captain Paul ‘Bear' Bryant helped defeat Tennessee 25-0, playing the entire game on a broken leg. The true story has long since become an integral part of Bryant's life history. And as the saying goes, they just don't make 'em like that anymore. <br><br>Well, Coach Bryant, meet Evan Mathis.

Going the legendary coach one better, Alabama's strong tackle competed for almost the entire 2001 season with a stress fracture in his left tibia. "It would have been in very early September," Mathis said. "It started last summer and just progressed to where it got worse and worse. Then all of a sudden there was a knot that was forming. I pretty much knew it was a stress fracture."

Mathis has no more knowledge of medicine than any other college freshman, but athletes know when something's wrong. "I've always had trouble with shin splints back to when I first got here my freshman year," he related. "I overcame those, but last summer around June they came back and then the knot formed. I asked people that knew a little about injuries, and they said it was probably a stress fracture."

As the nephew of former Tide great Bob Baumhower, Mathis's Crimson bloodlines are impressive.

Bryant's motivation to play in 1935 was obviously to help his team to victory over a hated opponent. But with Mathis it was a matter of a young athlete trying to win a job. "I didn't tell anybody, because I didn't want to risk not getting a chance to play this year," he said. "I just fought through it.

"My Mom told me to go to the trainer, but I was like, ‘No, I can't do that. They won't let me play or they'll keep me out.'"

At the time Mathis was running second string behind Dante Ellington--a returning two-year starter. And he correctly reasoned that you can't win a starting job sitting on the bench. "It happened right there when I had a chance to get some playing time," Mathis related. "(The injury) was one of the things that was slowing me down. Of course the day before I moved to strong tackle during two-a-days was when I strained my shoulder. So I had two good limbs on me at that time.

"But you just have to keep going. It was something I wanted. I just had to get it."

Mathis played only 59 snaps in Bama's first three games, but he started in the fourth game versus South Carolina and never relinquished that position. Starting every week the remainder of the season, he played a total of 462 snaps. Mathis was credited with 76 knock-down blocks on the year, 15 in his first start versus the Gamecocks, 11 against UTEP and 13 in the Auburn game.

"Toward the end of the season (Offensive Line Coach Jim Bob) Helduser found out," Mathis related. "He asked me ‘Why are you limping so much?' I said, ‘I think I've got a stress fracture.' I didn't say for sure I had one, but I knew I did.

"Coach Helduser just gave me that look he usually gives me. ‘Have you seen Rodney (Brown, the Tide trainer)?' I was like, ‘I'll see him after the season. I don't want to give up playing.' He sent me to Rodney, but I didn't go. I didn't want to hurt my chances of playing and making myself better."

A former heavyweight state champion wrestler in high school, Mathis has built himself into a powerful offensive lineman over the past year and a half.

Back in 1935 when the Coach Bryant story first hit the media, several reporters were skeptical, certain it was a publicity stunt. The Tide medical staff responded by producing the x-ray, confirming another piece of Bryant legend. "I heard that story growing up," Mathis said.

Of course even more than the average Alabama teenager, Mathis grew up immersed in Crimson Tide lore. Both Mom and Dad are Bama fans through and through, and Mom's brother, Bob Baumhower, is a former Alabama and Miami Dolphin great.

Even better than the young Bryant did, Mathis has plenty of documentation to back his story up. "Evan came in when we got back from the Independence Bowl and says, ‘Look at this knot on my leg,'" Brown explained. "It was a knot on the back of his tibia, which was a red flag (to me). Immediately we sent him off to get an x-ray. He's got a tibial stress fracture. We did a CT scan to confirm it."

As one of three redshirt freshmen starting on the Bama offensive line, Mathis has already gotten a fair amount of publicity. But this secret cost him his rightful place in last month's copy of ‘BAMA: Inside the Crimson Tide. That edition featured athletes that had played through injury during the recent season, but the interview took place before Mathis revealed his problem to the Tide training staff.

Just like the athletes mentioned in that story, Mathis definitely played with pain. "It was pretty painful," he admitted. "I played with it, though. I was limping around a lot, and it slowed me down a good bit. I'd get a kick on it or somebody's helmet would hit it hard, but there was nothing I could do. There were times when it was the most painful injury I've had.

"When a 250-pound linebacker would get cut (blocked) and his face mask would end up going straight into where the bone was cracked, that was painful. But you go back to the huddle and keep going. I got used to the pain after awhile."

For now, Mathis is receiving daily treatment, hoping the leg heals on its own. Brown explained; "His course of treatment is to put him on a bone stimulator for eight hours a day. He can walk and do normal walking stuff, but he does all his conditioning on a bicycle. We don't have him running or doing agilities where there would be pounding. We're going to give it a month and see what it does. Then we'll know if it's going to heal."

Shown looking to make a block during the Vanderbilt game, Mathis took over the starting slot at strong tackle in the fourth game and never looked back.

"The only way these things can heal is to stay off of it, and I wasn't able to do that during the season," Mathis said. "It's the only thing I've every broken. No stress fractures or broken bones. I've strained my shoulders, but nothing broken."

Normally stress fractures heal on their own, but it's also possible that more aggressive measures may be necessary. "If it doesn't heal on its own, then we've got to make some decisions," Brown explained. "The surgical treatment of choice is to put a rod down the shaft of the bone. It's a pretty big operation, but you can get (the athletes) weight bearing very quickly.

"Fans will remember Kenny Walker the basketball player. It's the same surgery. Kenny played in a month or six weeks. It's not like casting (athletes) with a broken leg. If Evan can make it through spring ball, then it's an option to do the surgery after spring. If it heals, great. If it doesn't, then we've got to make a decision."

If Mathis had not already used up his redshirt year in 2000, he might have viewed his injury situation this past season differently. But he knew that his eligibility clock was ticking. "There are only four seasons you'll have to play," Mathis explained. "Those four years are going to go by. I've heard that from many of the seniors. Taking away a fourth of that--comparing that to playing with the fracture--I would never take it away.

"I didn't even consider staying off it and not playing. All I wanted to do was play, no matter what the pain. I had a chance to step out or stay in it. I decided to stay in it."


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