Injury knocks Wohlabaugh off center stage

8/20/2004 By JERRY SULLIVAN

Dave Wohlabaugh knew it was coming when he arrived at the St. Louis Rams' practice site Wednesday morning. In fact, he felt an odd sense of relief. His hip had been slow to recover from offseason surgery. He had failed a physical, and it would be at least three months before he could consider playing again.

He had played nine years in the NFL, all of it as a starting center, which was beyond his wildest imaginings as a kid growing up in Hamburg. Financially, he was set for life. His whole career had been a gift, a blessing. Getting cut would be an invitation to become a full-time father and to get on with his real life.

"I was kind of looking forward to it," Wohlabaugh said Thursday by phone from St. Louis. "But when you get released, reality sets in really quick."

Getting cut by the Rams wasn't as easy as he'd expected. It's seldom easy when an NFL player reaches the end, when he comes face to face with his athletic mortality. It's painful. You get cut and the little boy inside you does the bleeding.

"It was tough," Wohlabaugh said, "because it's something I've done since I was 7 years old. To walk away, it's tough. It's emotional. At some point, everybody says they hate camp, they hate a lot of things about football. But you love playing the game. It's hard when you know it won't be there anymore, that it's over."

Wohlabaugh is fairly certain it's over. He had surgery March 5 for a torn labrum muscle in his right hip. Five months later, it's still too painful for him to play. The bones at the hip rub together when he gets into a lineman's stance. The doctors told him surgery wouldn't make it better.

His only option was to rest and see if the hip got stronger. There were no guarantees. Even if he did come back, it's unlikely he would be the same player.

"It would be hard to come back and not at the same level, especially at my age," he said. "Teams might not be too enticed by a 32-year-old with hip problems."

He was choking up over the phone. He has been a football player for 25 years. He was a star at Frontier, but not a kid you'd imagine becoming a millionaire athlete. He didn't start until his junior year at Syracuse, where he majored in political science. When New England drafted him in the fourth round in 1995, he thought he'd get cut before training camp.

During his rookie camp, Bill Parcells threatened to cut him every other day. Wohlabaugh didn't dress for the first five games. He started the sixth and went on to play 136 games in the NFL, every one as a starter. Last year, he started every game for the Rams, several with a broken hand.

He became a very solid center, a notch short of the Pro Bowl. He was a quiet guy off the field and a wild man on it. He was tough and smart, a plugger and a survivor, a Buffalo guy to the core. He wasn't huge by modern standards (6-foot-3, 300 pounds), but his heart was the biggest part of him.

Maybe that's why his release affected him so deeply. Football ignited the competitor within him. It's hard to accept that you'll never again feel the rush of a packed NFL stadium on Sunday afternoon.

"You can't reproduce it," he said. "I don't think anything in my life can ever replace that. It's a funny thing about my life. I'm extremely competitive about football, and I love doing it. But off the field, I'm not like some guys; when they play their kids in basketball, they're blocking shots."

Wohlabaugh said he'll miss football, but he's excited about the chance to spend more time with his family in Richfield, Ohio. He and his wife, Virginia, have three boys: Evan, 9; Jack, 6; and David Jr., 15 months.

He looks forward to watching the kids grow up, being a dad, visiting his parents in Hamburg. He got a seven-year, $26.3 million contract from the Browns five years ago. He can afford to kick back and contemplate his next move. "Fortunately for me," he said, "I was blessed."

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com