Tuesday, May 17, 2005

By Nick Wagoner
Staff Writer

Adam Archuleta’s back was in such bad shape last season that he couldn’t do simple, everyday tasks. Simple activities such as touching his toes were every bit as difficult as making an open field tackle on a running back.

Those struggles led to one of the most difficult years of Archuleta’s young career. In spite of the herniated disc in his back, Archuleta still played in all 16 games, finishing with 123 tackles, a pair of sacks and a fumble recovery for a touchdown. Still, it was clear that he wasn’t at his best for most of last year.

“It was pretty much a nightmare during the season,” Archuleta said. “I really probably had no business being out there, but that's in the past. When you play a whole season and you can't bend over and touch your knees, it's a big deal. Definitely, I'm much, much better off. I couldn't even tie my shoes during the season. If I could get through that, I can get through anything.”

The effort to get through the injury has been a difficult process. Archuleta had earned a reputation as a feared hitter with big-play ability during his first three seasons. Whether that reputation was deserved or not, Archuleta was unable to live up to it.

Archuleta returned to St. Louis this week for organized team activities, which moved full speed Tuesday. The offseason has been a difficult one, but not nearly as difficult as last season.

With a strict regiment of working out and seeing a therapist in Los Angeles almost every weekend, Archuleta is already feeling better.

``Let's put it this way: Compared to where I was during the season, I'm about 6,000 percent better,'' Archuleta said. “All I know is I feel good. I am getting better a lot faster than I normally would have.”

Helping Archuleta get better is a team of about four or five people that specialize in something different. Every morning, Archuleta goes and does a workout. After that, the day’s activities depend on which day it is.

Some days, Archuleta sees a soft tissue therapist, other days it is a Pilates instructor and still others find Archuleta spending time with a physical therapist. On the weekends, Archuleta has been shuttling from his home in Arizona to Los Angeles to see the back therapist.

Archuleta estimates that he is slightly ahead of schedule and credits the therapists in California for helping to speed up the process. Even the one-hour flights from Arizona to Los Angeles would seem to be a hindrance to a bad back, but Archuleta said the positives of the therapy outweigh the negatives.

“It’s only an hour flight, it’s like sitting in traffic, so it’s not really a big deal,” Archuleta said.

Whether Archuleta was not at his best last season because of the injury or not, he probably should be commended for attempting to play through the pain. Aeneas Williams, who began the season as the team’s other safety, went on injured reserve early in the season with arthritis in his neck. That was just one of the many participants in the revolving door at safety.

After watching the likes of Kwamie Lassiter, Justin Lucas and Tod McBride try to help; Archuleta said he had no choice but to do his best to stay on the field.

“I just had an obligation to my teammates to play,” Archuleta said. “It’s hard for me to associate pain and health. In my eyes, I could go out there and play. Was it at a high level? Was it at the level I am used to playing? No, but at the same time I was able to go out there and perform so it’s hard for me to say ‘no, I can’t go out there.’ It wasn’t like I was debilitated, it wasn’t where I was able to overcome a certain pain threshold on Sunday so in my mind it was hard for me to say, ‘look I have got to shut it down, I can’t play.’ I think that’s up to the medical professionals to tell you what’s good for you and what’s not good for you.”

Because Archuleta played the entire season with his back in such disarray, the back was certain to get worse before it got better. He was noticeably worn down by the end of the season, at one point even missing a golden opportunity for a playoff-clinching interception in the season finale against the Jets.

“All I probably needed last year was a few weeks rest and I would have been fine,” Archuleta said. “The fact that I played on it and it got worse and worse is really why I am in this situation right now.”

As Archuleta waits for the disc to get back into place, he has made strides in improving his flexibility. The next step in that is to get back to the level of strength he had before the injury. Part of the reason for Archuleta’s speedy recovery is that he opted to avoid surgery and go with therapy instead.

When he decided that therapy was his best option, the hardest part for Archuleta was realizing what he had to do to get completely healthy. Well-known for his obsessive workouts and dedication to the weight room, Archuleta had to learn a valuable lesson to get back to being the type of player many thought he was.

“You’ve got to rest it,” Archuleta said. “It’s a matter of a disc getting back in place. Once it’s in place you have got to get strong and prepare your body for impact so you want to get everything moving the right way so there are no impingements and just get all of the movement and mobility back. Once you have the flexibility then it’s all about getting strength. It’s a lengthy process. I’m new at this.”

Now, Archuleta can touch his toes again, but that is just the start to becoming the player many think he can become.