A collective sigh of relief could be heard Sunday night coming out of Michigan’s football practice.
Just one day after suffering a blow to the head that rendered his body motionless in Michigan Stadium’s north endzone, sophomore cornerback Zia Combs walked into practice, smiling as always, and addressed his team.
“He said something to us and started crying,” Michigan senior safety Cato June said. “It was an emotional time because everybody knows how quickly this game can be taken away from you in a freak accident like Zia’s.”
Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said that Combs “told everyone how happy he was that he was OK.” This was after Carr went to see Combs in his room at the University Hospital Saturday night after the game.
“When I went in, he looked up at me and tears just started flowing down his cheek,” Carr said. “I asked if something was wrong or if I could do something for him, but he just said, ‘Coach, they’re just tears of joy.’ ”
Combs, who earned the starting cornerback spot alongside Marlin Jackson, has plenty of reason to be happy. He regained full movement in his entire body and sustained no broken bones in the collision. Carr said he would be back in class today, but there is no time set for Combs’ return to the field.
“The fear was that there was a neck injury,” Carr said. “I am sure that there is no way that he is going to play until they feel very good about him being able to return safely and in a way that would never jeopardize his health from that injury. He is not going to do anything for at least a couple of weeks, and it could very well be that he won’t return this season.”
It could have been much worse.
Michigan safety Ernest Shazor’s hit on Combs came as the two gunners were trying to keep punter Adam Finley’s kick out of the endzone and pin the Penn State offense on the 1-yard line early in the first quarter. Shazor’s knee hit Combs’ head when the players collided at the goal line, knocking Combs unconscious for more than 10 minutes.
After the collision, longsnapper Joe Sgroi tried to pick Combs up off the turf, only to have Combs fall back to the ground like a rag doll. After that, fear took hold of the Michigan sideline, as team doctors and coaches crowded around Combs. For the second time in the past five months, a Michigan player’s career was in jeopardy, the first time coming in May when fellow sophomore cornerback Markus Curry was shot in the back.
“It was very hard to see a player down on the field, not moving,” said Jackson, a fellow sophomore. “That’s every football player’s worst nightmare to see something like that happen.”
The last thing Combs said as he left the field on a stretcher was “tell them to play hard.” Carr gathered the team together in a massive huddle and told them what Combs – one of the team’s emotional leaders – had to say to them.
“When coach Carr told us Zia was OK, we just knew that we had to play for him,” Michigan senior wide receiver Ron Bellamy said.