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4B - The Michigan Daily - FooTBALL SATURDAY - September 27, 2003
The Michigan Daily - FOOTBALL SATU
BY ZIA COMBSrTHJ. RADY MCUGH
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.
was trying to calm down, but I
knew something big was going to hap-
pen. 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 inter-
ception 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 mov-
ing 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 ambu-
lance, 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
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.
he next day, the doctors were
trying to keep me in the hospi-
tal. I was being hard-headed. I
was standing up to show them I was
fine. No one wants to stay in the hos-
pital. 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
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 stay-
ing 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 need-
ed 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
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 some-
thing like this, things would get worse
for her. I'm her baby boy.
W hen 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 dif-
ferent. 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 watch-
ing film, to lifting weights and coach-
ing 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
Combs in action then: His excitement about playing football alwa
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 foot-
ball 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 per-
manent 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 peo-
ple.To be honest, in my head and in my
heart, I feel like I can still play.
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 neigh-
borhood in Lexington, Kentucky.
There was a lot of violence and drugs.
You name it, it was going on in my
neighborhood. People call them ghet-
tos. I think growing up in poverty
made me stronger. By seeing things
Michigan trainers and coaches examine Combs. While down, Coach Carr said, "You're going to be OK, buddy."
Combs in action now: The sidelines aren't the same for him, but i