Solemn Sutherland 'lucky' to be in camp

It's a different Vinny Sutherland running pass routes and circling underneath punts and kickoffs this week at the University of the Pacific. There's the same zip in his gait and energy in his field demeanor. But the boisterous personality has disappeared.

There's a reason for the change, of course. After a series of personal problems surfaced in May, the second-year player is grateful just to get an opportunity in training camp to retain the kick-returning role that he filled for the 49ers last year as a rookie

"I feel more than lucky that the team didn't desert me," said Sutherland, who was arrested for drunken driving and felony hit-and-run driving after a May 18 single-vehicle accident in Saratoga. Niners rookies Kevin Curtis and Josh Shaw were passengers in Sutherland's SUV. "It would have been really easy for them to turn their backs on me because I let a lot of people down."

Sutherland also was charged with a DUI shortly after joining the 49ers last September. He failed to sign up for a first-time offender alcohol program in San Mateo County and his license had been suspended since October. He also had an alcohol-related arrest as a junior at Purdue University in 2000.

But Sutherland recognized his problem and dealt with it. At the tail end of the 49ers' final spring minicamp in June, he checked into a six-week alcohol rehabilitation program in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. After four weeks of treatment, Sutherland spent the final two weeks in outpatient care.

"The eye-opener was after the accident," Sutherland said. "It hurt, because I embarrassed myself and my family and the team. Anytime you go and do what I did, you have a problem. I owed it to myself and the team and my family to check into a facility and get my problem situated. That's all behind me now and I'm looking forward. Given a second chance, I definitely want to make amends, think positive and go forward."

Sutherland is doing that on the field with the Niners and remains in the thick of the competition for the job he had last year, when he averaged 22.8 yards on 50 kickoff returns, 7.0 yards on 21 punt returns, gained 16 yards on a reverse and caught one pass for five yards.

He also continues to do it off the field.

"He's doing the best he can," 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said. "He's going through the things the authorities have asked him to go through. He's been cooperating and he's been very determined to get back on course. He's in camp, he's competing for a spot on the team, and we'll see where it takes us. But he's gotten the help that he needs, and he's accepting that help, which is very important, and hopefully things will be much better for Vinny. Not just in football, but in his personal life."

Sutherland seems more concerned about football at the moment. "I'll just keep playing hard and when I get the chance, definitely step in and make a play," he said.

Said Niners general manager Terry Donahue: "He still has to come out and make this football team."

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