Winborn a profile in courage

As Jamie Winborn said, "A lot of people that had this injury hung their cleats up." But Winborn wouldn't allow a herniated disk in his neck to do that to him. He had surgery to fuse together two vertebrae, then returned stronger than ever this year in his fourth NFL season. That took a whole lot of courage. On Wednesday, Winborn was honored by teammates for his heart and valiance.

After what Winborn has been through, he certainly deserves it.

The flashy linebacker with the fiery personality returned from that career-threatening injury to become one of the team's defensive leaders in this trying season. Nobody on the 49ers typifies bravery better than Winborn, and he was chosen by teammates as the recipient of the 2004 Ed Block Courage Award, an annual accolade that honors one player from each NFL team who displays courage in overcoming injury or hardship.

Winborn has done plenty of that since having his C-5 and C-6 vertebrae fused together last December. He was back on the field five months later for spring minicamps, and has been a defensive terror on the field since the season started. Though he didn't enter the starting lineup until mid-October, Winborn leads the 49ers with 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles and is third on the team with 73 tackles.

"It means a lot to me because my teammates vote on it, just to know that they respect what it is that I've done and gone through and overcome to get to this point," Winborn said. "It lets you know that they respect you a lot and your game and how hard you work."

That's pretty easy for the 49ers to do when they consider the courage it took for Winborn to get back on the field after everything he had to overcome to get there.

"It was very scary," Winborn said of his ordeal. "What's even scarier than that is that I played five games not knowing that one hit could have been the one that paralyzed me, or even just slamming on the brakes too hard in my car could have paralyzed me. But the Lord was looking out for me, so I just keep fighting."

And fighting better than ever. Despite San Francisco's 1-10 record, Winborn's play-making prowess has helped fill the substantial void left by the season-ending injury to All-Pro linebacker Julian Peterson.

"I'm playing better than I was playing before I left," Winborn said. "And that was a goal that I set out to accomplish. From the first day of pads, I was hitting like I'd never missed a snap. That's the only way I really know how to play, is all out. I can't go out there and be timid. That's not my game."

Just four months after his surgery, Winborn put his helmet on and tested his neck by hitting a blocking sled on a high school field near his home in Atlanta. That took courage in its own right, but passing that test and getting past those fears gave Winborn the courage and confidence to return to the kind of hitting where the targets aren't stationery.

"It felt great when I was doing that, so I said, man, I'm going to crash-course it," Winborn said. "If it works, it works. If it don't, it don't."

Needless to say, it worked.

"Jamie has had a tremendous year," Niners coach Dennis Erickson said. "We all know the injury that he had a year ago and all the things he went through with the neck, and then to come back and play is one thing. But to come back and play at the level that he is playing at is truly amazing. He's having a tremendous year. He really is. He's filled in for us in a lot of areas. He's well-deserving."

And most of all, he's well. Winborn says the neck injury now is behind him, and that certainly appears so by the way he has performed this year.

"The neck's gone, man," he said. "That's a done deal. I mean, you've seen some of the hits I've laid out on guys out there. If it was to be hurt, it would have been hurt by some of those. I've even hit some guys in terrible positions, head down and stuff, and it didn't do anything. It feels actually stronger than it did before."

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