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December 12, 2007
Center of redemption
Matt Spanos thought his right arm had broken. Instead, his triceps had torn.
The tendon had ripped clean off the bone. Doctors diagnosed it immediately. Surgery was inevitable.
The regular season, once holding the promise of his first collegiate start, was four days away. After missing the previous season - when academic probation kept him off the roster - it appeared Spanos would lose out again.
"We all shed our tears and figured that was it," said Gina Spanos, the center's mother.
"I didn't want to have to be presented with the option of having to miss my whole senior year," Matt said last week. "I didn't want to hear that. It was something I wasn't prepared for."
He ascended the stairs toward coach Pete Carroll's office and relayed the diagnosis. Carroll said he would support whatever decision Spanos made - opt for surgery and perhaps be ready for USC's bowl game, or delay the procedure and somehow try to come back sooner from a devastating injury that likely would debilitate his snapping abilities. Maybe he could return for the second half of the season to play a reserve role at guard or tackle?
The Kristofer O'Dowd era began that Saturday. The true freshman struggled with line calls against Idaho but drew raves in the Trojans' next game, as USC ran over Nebraska in Lincoln.
O'Dowd would be a four-year starting center, it seemed, as long as he could stay healthy. Offensive line coach Pat Ruel had no expectation that Spanos would return.
But the senior, knowing any playing time would come with pain, had decided against surgery. The task ahead included a regimen of lifting light free weights, which aimed to strengthen the muscles around the triceps. Eventually, the hope was, the injured tendon could use those muscles as a crutch.
The easygoing, fifth-year senior turned serious, perhaps the only one on campus who knew with any certainty that he would return.
"I'm so glad I was able to make a decision on what I want to do in my life," he said. "Just to be able to finish playing with these guys I came in with - knowing that I did give up my all in the end here. It's a really good feeling you have. You feel really proud of yourself."
There were no plans to take Spanos to Washington, for USC's fourth game. If anything were to happen to O'Dowd, Jeff Byers would move to center, and Alatini Malu would take Byers' spot at left guard.
That week, Spanos requested the opportunity to practice. Nearly five weeks had passed since he had worked out in pads. Shocking everyone, he appeared to be only a couple of weeks away. He felt sore but looked OK.
Coaches added him to the Washington travel roster as "insurance." When O'Dowd and right guard Chilo Rachal suffered knee injuries on the same first-half play, Ruel thought about cashing in his policy. His options: Byers could move to center, and Ruel could send out two reserve guards; or, Spanos and Malu could replace the injured players.
"(Spanos) looked like the right choice," Ruel said. "But I didn't know if he was until he looked at me, and he said, 'Let me do it.'"
Spanos' face, and those words, expressed more to Ruel than the simple request.
"When you work all summer long, and you work your two or three years to get your opportunities, and then they get taken away from you for whatever reason, it hurts," Ruel said. "It hurts a lot. Then, all of a sudden, that window cracked open, and he saw, this is an opportunity."
Spanos and quarterback John David Booty fumbled a couple of exchanges in the Seattle rain - including one in which the center's bulky arm brace, protecting the triceps, collided with his right knee brace.
Still, by the end of the night, "I felt on top of the world," Spanos said. "Everybody was real proud that I came back and played. It was real great to get that support from everybody, the team and fans."
Said Gina, "He knew he was back. He knew that the rest of the season was his."
Spanos failed a class in 2006. He had to drop another, after arguing with the professor.
"I put myself in a rough position," he said.
He cops to an apathetic approach toward school. It resulted in academic ineligibility and a loss of his roster spot and a potential starting job.
"There's a lot of guys that come here, and all they really live for is to play on Saturday," Spanos said. "Not being able to do that just breaks your heart.
"I fully regret the mistakes I made. But, then again, I did learn from it."
He is one class - Spanish 3 - away from graduating. He said his Spanish is rusty, but he expects to take the course and graduate next semester.
"He kind of let us down in that area, and he let himself down," Ruel said. "But, the thing is, he bounced back. He learned a very valuable lesson for the rest of his life - that sometimes you do get knocked down. But he came back, and then he made the most of it when he came back. He really has matured."
Spanos has not offered excuses, but there is something Gina thinks people should know. His academic trouble came during a time of great sadness, she said, as he dealt with the deaths of a gradmother and grandfather.
"We like to keep our lives private, but it just bothered me that people were calling him lazy and saying, 'What's wrong with him?'" she said. "We all read the Internet. People were saying, 'Yank his scholarship.'
"I wish people wouldn't have judged him that way."
Spanos is expected to make his ninth-straight start at center, when USC faces Illinois in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day. Along with the triceps injury, the senior had his right pinky nearly ripped off against Stanford on Oct. 6 - his first start.
At halftime, doctors told Ruel that the finger had torn "all the way around." Once again, the coach prepared for a replacement. However, after the finger had been secured, Spanos said, "No, I'm OK," and returned for the second half.
The stitches have opened a few times, and Spanos receives numbing shots on game days.
He still needs surgery on the triceps. But in the offseason, there will be NFL scouts to impress. They will not fit their schedule to Spanos' needs, so he must find a suitable time for the procedure.
Once harrowing, the dangling tendon has been reduced to a mere inconvenience.
"The first couple of weeks (after the tear) were kind of figuring out, 'What do I want to do? Do I really want to give it a shot, or not?'" Spanos said. "What would I be in the future? Would (surgery) screw up anything in the NFL?
"And I kind of just pushed on. Just put a lot of that stuff in the back of my mind and just kept going."
Jonathan Kay can be reached at Jon@USCFootball.com
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