"This is the most pain I've ever had as an athlete," Carter said yesterday following practice. "It's the biggest injury I've had. I've had sprained ankles and groins, but I think this is the worst. It's my first experience having to really go through this much pain. But I'm trying my best to work through it."
On the other hand, Mathis actually played all of last season with his stress fracture, making him something of a connoisseur when it comes to pain. "There's a little soreness, but I'm used to that. I'm not going to let it keep me out at all. The pain couldn't be any worse than it was sometimes last year. It was horrible. But I just sucked it up and went.
"To most people (this injury) might be very painful, but I've had this stress fracture for over a year. This is the best I've ever felt with it. When I say ‘a little soreness,' that may be real hard to bear for some other people, but I've been playing with it so long that I'm used to it."
Though their injuries occurred at different times, both athletes had similar stress fractures repaired following spring practice. Head Football Trainer Rodney Brown explained last spring the procedures. "The surgery is actually like driving a railroad spike," Brown related. "They make an incision, drill a hole, then insert a guide rod. Then they ream out the bone like a roto-rooter deal. They then insert the rod and close it up."
The procedure ‘fixes' the stress fracture, preventing any movement in the area at all, thereby allowing the bone to heal. Unlike some orthopedic procedures where it's necessary to go back in later to remove plates and/or screws, the rod stays in. "Once it's in there, it's in there," Brown said.
The Tide medical staff has done several tests on both players to make certain there are not any problems. And at this point both fractures are essentially healed. But significant soreness lingers. Mathis explained, "The pain is the same place the pain has always been, right on the fracture spot. After four to six weeks, the incision is completely healed. The only thing you have to get over is the soreness on the fracture site. That just comes with time."
"The doctor says I can't hurt it any worse," Carter added. "The bone has healed very nicely. Everything is working the way it's supposed to--but it hurts. Mentally I need to get it together, and that's what I'm working to do."
In a way, advances in sports medicine have contributed to the problem. Athletes are returning to competition faster than ever before, and though the injured area may be strong enough--now players often return to the practice field before the pain has gone.
As every child learns in science class, pain is the body's way of warning that something is wrong. And ignoring pain is simply not a natural response. "Exactly," Carter agreed. "I'm trying my best to push through it. It's hurting; it's hurting; it's hurting. But I'm trying my best to work with it the best I can."
"The coaching staff and the team are doing their best, working with me," Carter continued, "motivating me, keeping me going, keeping my mind off of my leg. I think that most of it right now is mental.
"I think if I get it together mentally I'll be fine."
Tide Head Coach Dennis Franchione talked about Carter's problem, following Monday's practice. "AC was better today but not well. We'll have to see what tomorrow brings. If we played today, then AC couldn't go. Right now we ‘hope' he'll be available, but we don't ‘expect' (that he will)."
Of course the problem is that Alabama kicks off its season in less than two weeks versus MTSU--and time is running short. "He really hasn't practiced much, and it's getting tough," Franchione said. "He had a cortisone shot earlier, and we're hoping that will help."
Given the similarities between the two athletes' injuries, it's tempting to make judgements based on the dissimilar way that the pain has affected them. But Mathis does not believe that is fair. "The pain comes usually when I hit a stride or right when I take off as I plant my foot on the ground," Mathis related. "I can see where AC would have more trouble, because he's striding the whole time, running on his toes the whole time, because that's what he needs to do.
"If I was a receiver, I'd probably be feeling as much pain as he is."
Carter agreed, "It's totally different, because he's a lineman. He doesn't do as much running as I do. He's moving, but I'm constantly pounding, pounding, pounding. I'm running the route, blocking, coming in motion. I'm always on the move at receiver. I'm working my leg a lot more than he's working his."
The problem is one of degree. But for an athlete like Carter, whose entire game is based on quickness, losing even a half step can be devastating. "Take away any of that and you take away a big part of my game," he said. "If we had to play a game tomorrow, I wouldn't be any help to the team. I'm just going to work my hardest to get healthy and full speed so I can help this ball club."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Since Carter is a fourth-year senior, a redshirt season is theoretically possible. But academic problems in the past could make that option less attractive.