After suffering what for most athletes would have been a season-ending injury, Bearden was back on the practice field Tuesday. His right knee heavily braced, Bama's senior punter was kicking again, despite searing pain that coursed up his leg with every swing.
"It's tough," Bearden acknowledged. "But the pain is nothing that I can't get through."
Bearden injured his knee three weeks ago on an ill-fated fake punt attempt versus Arkansas. The swelling has finally gone down enough to let him practice again, but the pain remains. "It hurts, but as the day went along it got better," Bearden said. "It hurt bad at first. As I continued to punt it still hurt--but not nearly as bad as when I started.
"Hitting the ball doesn't hurt. It's just swinging the leg. It hurts just as badly when I practice the motion without the ball."
Forget this talk of "contact," the truth is that football is a "collision sport." And SEC athletes quickly become accustomed to playing with pain.
But in this case, no one would have blamed Bearden if he had called it quits. "It's on me--whether I could stand the pain or not," Bearden explained. "It's my choice. I can't hurt my knee any worse. It's just a matter of whether or not I can handle the pain.
"I'm not going to give up on it until I just can't stand it any more. It's just pain."
After practice Tuesday at various times with various reporters Bearden described his injury differently. The truth of that one is that nobody associated with the Tide program will speak on the record about his injury. But a few things are clear.
- Whether now or after the season, Bearden's right knee will require surgery.
- With the joint fully braced, Bearden won't aggravate the injury by continuing to play.
- And given the choice, Bearden wasn't about to end his final season at The Capstone without a fight.
"Eventually (the doctors) will have to go in and fix my knee--nothing serious," Bearden understated. "The doctor told me it wouldn't hurt (the knee) for me to keep playing. It was just a matter of whether or not I can handle the pain. But if I had surgery I'd be out for the rest of the year."
2002 marks Bearden's fifth season on the Alabama squad. That may seem like a long time, but the hard reality is that college athletes have precious few chances to play their favorite sport.
And Bearden's football clock is ticking.
"I want to get back as soon as I can; it's my senior year, and I want to get back and play," he explained. "You have a limited number of chances to play this game, and I've already missed two of them this season. We've only got seven games left before I'm out of here, so I'm going to do what I can.
"I'm doing everything I can, but if it doesn't work, it doesn't work."
Before being sidelined by injury, Bearden was averaging 44.07 yards per punt. Those numbers would place him among the Top 15 punters in the nation. "I went from having the best year I've had yet to sitting on the bench and cheering for my teammates," Bearden said. "It was tough sitting in the training room with Tyler (Watts). He was sitting out too, and we were sitting there next to each other just asking ‘What's going on?'"
If Bearden is able to punt again this season, it will be due to the protection afforded by a state-of-the-art knee brace. He recognizes the necessity of wearing the device, but that doesn't mean he has to like it. "It's the most uncomfortable thing I've ever worn," Bearden related. "It's tight, which makes it hard to bend my leg. But it helps me, so I deal with it. This was my first day back kicking, so it'll get better. It'll loosen up. It helps a lot, but at the same time it's really uncomfortable when I'm punting."
Tuesday was Bearden's first day back at practice, and he's not sure how quickly he'll progress. He explained, "It was different today, dressed out in full pads with the brace and everything. It felt good. I'm getting better. I don't know how good yet, but I'm better. We tried it today, and it wasn't anything bad.
"I don't know about Saturday, but I'm trying. I'll keep doing it to see if I can get better. I hope I'll be able to punt. I'll do what I can."
Aside from dealing with the pain, Bearden's principal problem right now is timing. "I'm not even close yet," he stated flatly. "I'm just trying to get back so I can do something this season."
In Bearden's absence, sophomore Michael Ziifle has been serviceable--if not spectacular. Bearden assessed his performance. "Ziifle is doing a good job. He had a great game against Georgia. As long as he's doing what he's doing, I'm fine where I am. I don't want to come in and play just because I'm a senior and hurt the team.
"If Mike is punting better than I am this week, then he's going to play. I wouldn't put the team in that position, where I'm coming in just because I'm a senior. And I don't think Coach Fran would do that either. As long as he keeps doing that, I don't know if there is any need for me to come back."
He and Ziifle are the only punters on the Bama squad that have ever kicked in a game, so obviously Bearden's return would be important. "The least I could do is try," Bearden said. "If the knee starts hurting too badly, I can just quit."
Somehow, Bama fans doubt that will happen.