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'Just look at me'

BY
BY ZIA COMBS WITH J. BRADY MCCOLLOUGH

Published September 25, 2003

The last time you saw Zia Combs, he couldn't move a muscle. It's been almost a year since his freak accident, and his story has still gone untold.

Now, he tells it - in his own words.

There was something about the Penn State game. I was so hyper. I was trying to calm down, but I knew something big was going to happen. Before we went into our pre-game meal, I was shaking. I went up to my roommate, Ron Bellamy, and was like, "Man, I got a feeling. I'm either going to knock somebody out, or I'm going to knock myself out ..." I can laugh about it now, but that was the only thing I remembered when I got injured. I wished I'd never said that. When I ran out of the tunnel, I was so hyped I was about to use the restroom on myself. I was feeling good about the game. I saw myself making an interception or a big play. Every time I think about the injury, I always think about what I said before the game.

The coaches called for a pooch punt. I dropped my water bottle and told a few of my teammates, "I'll be back." When the ball was snapped, I ran down the field, and I saw the ball bounce at the two-yard line. I was like, "Man, I have to get this." When I went to get the ball, I put my neck down in an awkward position to keep the ball from going into the endzone. I didn't know it was Ernest Shazor whose knee hit my helmet.

The only thing I remember after being hit was just looking into the sky. I was conscious, but I couldn't move. I remember Joe Sgroi trying to pick me up. I tried to shake my head to tell him "No," but I couldn't. I just flopped back down like dead weight. That's when I really started to get worried.

When the trainers came out to the field, they were just trying to find out what was going on. They were like, "Can you move? Can you wiggle your toes? Can you wiggle your fingers?" I told them I couldn't. I was still shocked. I could slightly move my hands.

Coach Carr came out there and said, "You're going to be OK, buddy." I told Coach Carr, "Tell them to play hard," to let the team know that I was OK and that I'm in good hands. Because when something happens to a close friend, you get down yourself. The football game isn't important anymore. You know, your best friend is hurt, and he might not be able to walk again. It's bigger than anything.

I found out I could move again when I was in the ambulance. I started moving my toes and my feet, so I didn't think the injury was something big - that I could have been paralyzed. When they got me out of the ambulance, I started saying, "When am I going to get back to the game?" I'm bugging these people about going back, and really, they want to tell me I'm not going back to the stadium. But they were like, "We'll see," and I was all excited.

When I was in the hospital and they were sticking IVs in me, I was asking "What's the score?" When I went into the CAT scan, it was over from there. I just fell asleep. An hour or two later, I woke up, and they told me, "You won, you won in overtime." In the CAT scan, you aren't supposed to move, but I was all like, "YEAH!" I had a big smile, like an ear-to-ear smile on my face.

I was drugged up in the hospital. Coach Carr came in the room with Coach Herrmann, who recruited me. Coach Carr just looked at me. And then I asked him if I kept the ball from going into the endzone. That kind of brought a smile to everyone's face in the hospital, because there were bigger things to be worrying about. When I asked Coach Carr that, all I remember is tears started coming out of his eyes. I had never seen Coach Carr cry before. There's a lot of things I can't remember right now because I was so drugged up.

The next day, the doctors were trying to keep me in the hospital. I was being hard-headed. I was standing up to show them I was fine. No one wants to stay in the hospital. They finally let me leave, and then my cousin drove me down to practice Sunday night. I had a little talk with the team. I told them not to take playing football for granted. That was the main message I tried to get across to the team. After that, I just started crying.

The next few weeks, I stayed in my apartment most of the time. I was still kind of down. I really didn't want to talk to anyone because the injury always came up. Basically, I was staying away from people. I just wanted to be around my teammates.

At that point, I thought that I'd be back the next year - stronger, faster, even better. When I was able to start lifting weights, I was lifting hard. The doctors were telling me, "Well, you know, it's going to be your decision." I was coming back.