Newberry vows return in 2006

A week from now, Jeremy Newberry will have surgery during which doctors fracture bones surrounding his right knee in numerous places so that blood clots will form and create synthetic cartilage where there now is none. That might sound grim, but the two-time Pro Bowl center says he'll be back next season good to go, whether the operation is successful or not. "Even if I get nothing out of the microfracture," Newberry said, "the worst-case scenario is that I can at least do what I did this year."

And that was start 11 games and play well. On a bum knee that has virtually no cartilage. In the rugged interior trenches of the big, bad NFL.

But Newberry's war-torn body finally has had enough for 2005. During last week's game against the Tennessee Titans, Newberry felt his right knee start to buckle on him in certain situations. "My leg started giving out on me," he said. "It collapsed on me three or four times in that game."

And so, after a long discussion with coach Mike Nolan, Newberry decided to go on injured reserve for the rest of the year instead of risking further injury on his weakened leg during the final quarter of the season. It was a tough decision. Newberry said serious consideration was given to just giving his knee one or two weeks of rest –as he did once earlier this season – and then coming back for the San Francisco's remaining games.

But, after three months of grinding, Newberry was playing on a malfunctioning leg. He was OK once he was able to fire off the ball, lean and use leverage. But when he had to plant and hold off bull rushers in pass protection, his leg did not have stability. Newberry was leaving himself open to extensive damage and the possibility of tearing ligaments in the knee.

"Right now, I'm disappointed that I'm not playing further," Newberry said. "I was hoping I could make it the whole season. I deal with pain all year, but I've done that before, so it wasn't anything extraordinary. We talked about taking a couple of weeks off and coming back to play the last couple of games. But we decided it was a better idea to have the extra five weeks (recovery time) and get ready for next season. I think that's probably the best thing to do."

Nolan concurred: "It certainly was an extremely difficult decision for J. But as he looks forward, it looks to be the best time to get his knee worked on, so that the time clock is better in the future for him."

This is Newberry's time clock: He'll have surgery on his knee Tuesday, then give it ample rest before beginning about four months or rehabilitation.

Newberry has talked with several other players who have had successful microfracture surgery, but there is no guarantee that he will benefit from the procedure. Some have implied the surgery may end his career, but Newberry scoffs at such a suggestion.

"I'm confident I'll be fine," he said. "Even if I get unlucky and it doesn't work, I think I can come back out next season and at least do what I did this year. That's the worst-case scenario. It's definitely not going to get any worse than it is now. It's very highly unlikely I won't get any (improvement) out of the microfracture. It might not fix it all the way, but it will definitely make it better. I'm very optimistic I'll make a full recovery and I'm looking forward to having a healthy leg for at least the next couple of years that come."

Newberry could have had the surgery earlier this year, which would have improved his chances for recovery later. But he did not want to miss the entire 2005 season after playing in only one game in 2004.

"I probably should have had it fixed before the season," Newberry said, "but I don't know how tough it would have been to miss two full seasons back-to-back and not play and then try to come back mentally and play football three years later. Then the retirement stuff would have started creeping into your mind."

Did someone say retirement? Naturally, after all Newberry has been through – he has lost count of his surgeries since joining the Niners, but the figure is at least 10 – the retirement issue comes up quite often.

Many feel he should walk away from the game while he literally still can. He doesn't want to end up like former Raiders' Hall of Fame center Jim Otto, among other linemen who played through the pain and injuries to the detriment of their health later in life. Besides his knee, Newberry has been taking pain-killing injections in both shoulders to play each Sunday for the past two months. Both of his shoulders were separated earlier this season.

"I'm still enjoying playing," Newberry said when asked if he might contemplate retirement. "When the game becomes a burden, or I'm not enjoying it any more, it will definitely be an option. But right now, I'm still having fun playing. I'm still enjoying it, so I want to continue to play. I mean, that's where I'm at right now."

And the 49ers hope that's where Newberry will be at next year after successful microfracture surgery.

"I'm very hopeful," Nolan said. "I think that that's the best way to say it. I'm not a doctor, so it's hard for me to say. I don't have history with those types of surgeries. I know we've done a lot of research on those surgeries both with young and older people. I'm hopeful that he does come back. We'll have to wait and see."

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