'Just look at me'


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.

But one day, something made me ask the head trainer, Paul Smith, when I could start strengthening my neck and things like that. He said we needed to have a talk. I told him I was ready for spring practice. He was like, "This is a problem." He told me I had spinal stenosis - a narrow spinal canal. He said I was a high risk. Of course, I'm not listening. I told him, "I'm too strong right now, my faith in God is too strong." When I was talking like that, he just decided to tell me the truth, because he didn't want to give me false dreams. He said, "The doctors aren't going to let you out there. There's a 100-percent chance you're going to get hurt again." I was like, "What are you talking about? You said it was going to be my decision." I was mad. I hit something, and I just left. It was hard for me to realize my career at Michigan was over.

I still haven't accepted that my football career is finished. I read this article by a doctor from the head-and-neck-industry. His belief is spinal stenosis doesn't have anything to do with permanent paralysis. He's had up to 50 patients, and all of them are playing pro football at some level. Doctors have opinions, and there are so many opinions you're going to get from people. To be honest, in my head and in my heart, I feel like I can still play.

I always look back on the play, and I ask myself, "Why and how did this happen?" You can't question God, but why did this happen? I came up with so many answers to that question. Sometimes, within that first month, it just drove me crazy. I was moving up the depth chart, and I was starting at cornerback. Then this happened, and I was like, "I was just starting to have fun." I try not to think about it because I start to get mad again.

I've seen the replay of my injury a million times, wishing that I could have dove a different way. To me, it didn't really look like anything big or major. Those are the hits that hurt the most, the ones that don't look bad. I have the tape at home, but I try not to look at it.

You can't really understand not being able to move unless you've been through it. All I can say is people should think about how blessed they are, because you don't realize it until it's taken away from you.

Football was important to me growing up. I was always hyper, so football was the way for me to use that. All my life, I was a running back. I liked scoring touchdowns, you know, being the star. Football was also a way out. I grew up in a rough neighborhood in Lexington, Kentucky. There was a lot of violence and drugs. You name it, it was going on in my neighborhood. People call them ghettos. I think growing up in poverty made me stronger. By seeing things happen to your friends - I've seen my friends get shot - that made me not want to stay there. I didn't want to become another statistic. I had a few friends become a statistic. Off the top of my head, about five have been shot. I didn't want to go to any more funerals. My first cousin was shot three times, and that was the last straw right there.

My mom's been through a lot. She's blind, and she has a disease that affects her coordination. My uncle died of it; it's hereditary. Your bones deteriorate, and eventually you die. Seeing what my mom went through when I was a kid has made me stronger. My mom has only been to one game here at Michigan. It's kind of tough to get her in the car with a wheelchair. I just call her after the game. She found out about my injury on that Saturday. I didn't want the doctors to tell her then because she's going through her own problems. I was afraid that if they told her something like this, things would get worse for her. I'm her baby boy.

When I played for Michigan, it was a crazy world. People that you'd never talked to in your life would want to talk to you all of a sudden. I've handled it well - going from being a starter to not playing anymore. I try to just let everybody know not to treat me any differently now that I'm just Zia - not Zia Combs, the football player.

Not playing football is so much different. You have so much time on your hands, and it's like, "Man, what do I do?" I go to practice every day. It's just something to keep my mind focused on football. I help out the younger freshman defensive backs if they have any questions. Right now, I lift weights, lift weights, run, lift weights, run. That's all I do. It's totally different because you go from living the busy life of practicing and watching film, to lifting weights and coaching a little bit. People think coaching is easy, but it's not. You have to be smart. It's like chess. But right now, I'm still young, so it's hard for me to accept when people call me Coach Combs. I'm still a player. I'm still young, and it's hard for me to get over not playing anymore.

When I'm on the sidelines during the game, I tell the guys to just look at me when they're tired. Look at me on the sidelines. When they see someone on the sidelines who can't play anymore, and they're out there playing still, they'll get their second breath just like that. They'll be like, "I'm able to play, and this man isn't." That's what I always remind them. Look at me on the sidelines. Just look at me. Just think about how blessed you are to be out there. Whenever you're tired, just look at Zia Combs.

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