Love of game no reason to risk life of limb

Jeff Ulbrich has a complete rupture of the biceps tendon in his left arm. He risks losing 50 percent of the strength in that arm for the rest of his life if he continues to play football this season. And yet, the resilient, tough-guy linebacker still is considering that option as the 49ers enter their bye week. "I haven't made up my mind yet," Ulbrich said Monday. "I love this game. I really feel like we're growing as a team, as a defense, and I want to be a part of it." But at what expense?

The sixth-year linebacker spoke in determined yet realistic tones as he considers his alternatives. He was injured early in the second quarter of Sunday's 28-3 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, when Ulbrich became engaged with an offensive lineman while making a tackle on running back Edgerrin James.

"I just popped it out like that," Ulbrich said. "I heard it snap and felt it. I've never had anything closely associated to a torn muscle like that. I knew immediately what it was."

Ulbrich left the game momentarily, but then returned after having the arm taped. He finished with a game-high 10 tackles and now leads the 49ers with 41 tackles on the season.

"I didn't feel a huge dropoff" after hurting the arm, Ulbrich said. "If I felt like I was hurting the team, I would have come out. But I felt like I was still competitive."

The fact that he was able to remain competitive Sunday after tearing the muscle has Ulbrich considering the option of continue to play, despite the risk involved. Team doctors are not demanding that Ulbrich have surgery, but "all the doctors seem to agree that it will be very difficult to repair, if at all," if he waits until after the season to have the surgery, Ulbrich said.

So why would he wait? This decision – though it would cost the 49ers one of their most consistent and productive defenders for the remainder of the season – seems like a no-brainer.

Niners coach Mike Nolan said Monday that Ulbrich will "be a 49er for a long time," so Ulbrich doesn't have to worry about his future with the team. And besides, the Niners figure to be a better team playing for higher stakes next year, when Ulbrich could return 100 percent if he has surgery now.

"I think next year will be a product of this year's work, you know?" Ulbrich said. "It becomes an emotional thing with me. I've got a lot invested in this year and my offseason training with the team during training camp and minicamps. I just know I love playing with these guys. I think that we're a work in progress, and I think Nolan's got us pointed in the right direction. And I want to be part of this growing, part of this progression."

Ulbrich agrees that surgery may be the logical way to go. But over the next few days, he's determined to explore every way of remaining on the field with limited risk to the future health of his arm.

"If I can find a physician or a surgeon that's done the surgery 10 weeks out and had success, then maybe I'll go down that road," said Ulbrich, who also said there has been some discussion of "possibly re-attaching (the bicep) and just going with it and then possibly re-tearing it (after the season)."

"If I have to, I'll get the surgery, if that's the best move," Ulbrich continued. "But right now, I just haven't made my mind up. But I have to make it soon. Obviously, the team has to do some things if I'm going to be done for the season. And, the more I mess around with it, the more I contract it, the higher the muscle starts to creep up my arm and the more scar tissue develops, and then it becomes a more difficult procedure."

If Ulbrich needs another opinion about how to proceed, there's no doubt where his wife Cristina stands. And, ultimately, she may be the voice of reason.

"She wants me to be able to throw the ball with the kids and not have any issues as far as that after football," said Ulbrich, who's left-handed and a father of three.


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