View Full Version : Ex-Cal passer bearing the pain

12-22-2002, 10:51 AM
Ex-Cal passer bearing the pain
Aching Pawlawski educates public about neck injuries
By Brian Higgins - STAFF WRITER


Sunday, December 22, 2002 - BRENTWOOD -- In 1999, Mike Pawlawski led his Albany (N.Y) team to the Arena Football League championship. Last year, he guided the San Francisco Demons into the one and only XFL title game.

Today, at 33, the former Cal quarterback winces in pain while attempting to snatch a glass off an upper shelf.

"A lot of things that other people take for granted hurt me -- picking up Casey (his 20-month-old son), bending over to give him a kiss, grabbing a towel getting out of the shower, sleeping," Pawlawski said.

"I probably wake up eight to 10 times a night because of my neck. The question is, do you medicate yourself so you walk around in a narcotic stupor, or do you just deal with the pain? I've got a son who deserves better and a wife who deserves better."

Much ado was made of the fact that Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb played nearly an entire game on a broken ankle last month. But in Pawlawski's swan song as a

professional athlete, he played nearly an entire season with an acute neck injury that, ultimately, aged him well beyond his years.

"I can't tell you how many times (former Cal coach) Bruce Snyder told him not to stick his head in there," said former Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jerrott Willard, Pawlawski's teammate on the lone 10-win Golden Bears team of the last half-century in 1991. "Mike was one of those guys who was too tough to listen."

Now, he's hoping others will heed his words. Pawlawski is the producer and host of a Fox Sports Net special, "Heads Up! Preventing Spinal Injuries," which debuted Saturday and will be rebroadcast Tuesday at 2 p.m., Jan.3 at 2:30 p.m. and Jan.11 at 6:30 p.m.

The project is a plea to young football players, coaches and parents to develop habits that will help ensure a lifetime free of debilitating neck injuries.

"Football players have to think of themselves as invincible," Pawlawski said, "and I don't want to tell kids that they're not invincible. I just want to tell them that they can really, really limit 80 to 90 percent of their neck injuries by proper technique."

The half-hour special includes the story of University of Washington safety Curtis Williams, as told by his older brother, Cal secondary coach J.D. Williams. Curtis Williams was rendered a quadriplegic after lowering his head to make a tackle at Stanford Stadium in 2000. He died earlier this year.

His career suffered

Though Pawlawski's saga is not among those featured, he is an apt spokesman on the subject. A decade after claiming the Pacific-10 Conference's co-Offensive Player of the Year award, Pawlawski took a permanent hiatus from an Arena career that, he says, would have paid him seven figures for the "four or five years I had left."

The lure: a chance to again compete before Bay Area fans as the quarterback of the Demons in the fledgling XFL.

In the second game of the flashy, second-tier league's lone season in February 2001, Pawlawski -- whose excruciatingly long list of football injuries included a vertebrae fusion -- was walloped attempting to make a tackle during a bizarre play that unfolded after he threw an interception against the Las Vegas Outlaws. Pawlawski's head snapped back as he futilely struggled to get his footing on the Pacific Bell Park turf.

"I saw Mike in the locker room the next game, and he was so fearful that he was ready to be declared a disqualified player," said spinal surgeon Clem Jones, whose clinic, the San Francisco Spine Center at St. Francis Memorial Hospital, is sponsoring the FSN special. "He remembered the sensation of losing his breath and feeling extreme pain and wondering if he had a catastrophic spinal cord injury."

Pawlawski's ultra-intense persona, however, guided him back onto the field, where he staved off a challenge from his indirect successor at Cal, Pat Barnes, and guided the Demons to the XFL championship game. There, San Francisco was routed by the Los Angeles Xtreme and QB Tommy Maddox -- the Pittsburgh Steelers signal-caller who last month was temporarily paralyzed by a glancing blow to the head.

Once the adrenaline of the season ended, Pawlawski realized his career was over. Jones, who performed Pawlawski's 1999 spinal fusion, diagnosed the QB's injury as a degeneration of the joint between the occipital bone and the first cervical vertebrae.

"Most people take for granted looking over their shoulder or swiveling their head from side-to-side," Jones said. "But when you take the area between the base of the skull and upper cervical spine and you make those joints arthritic, that's a pretty debilitating injury.

"I'm not enthusiastic that there's going to be any surgical solution that's going to give him the same mobility," Jones noted. "He's going to have to have a much more sedentary lifestyle."

And that, more than a considerable loss of income, has been difficult on Pawlawski.

Tough on wife, too

"He's still the same person, but I have to live with his pain," said Pawlawski's wife of 10 years, Tracy, a former Cal soccer player. "When he's in pain, I tread lightly. I know if he's in a bad mood, it's not because he's being a jerk -- it's because he's in pain.

"Some of the things that we used to do together -- run, hike, bike, scuba dive -- we don't do anymore," Tracy added. "I always thought we'd grow old being active together."

Pawlawski emphasizes his is not a sob story. Though his medicine cabinet is filled to the point of overflow with anti-inflammatories, muscle relaxers and painkillers, many of the bottles are approaching their expiration date.

He prefers to keep a clear head to nurture what he hopes will be a career in video production. Pawlawski, the host of FSN's weekly "Cal Sports Magazine," took advantage of the rehabilitation clause of the Workman's Compensation laws to train in production.

He installed an editing room in the Brentwood home that he and Tracy rented last month after relocating from San Ramon, and is putting the final touches on the first in a planned series of fly-fishing videos -- a passion Pawlawski indulges more gingerly these days.

Throughout his career, Pawlawski has talked longingly of retiring to a life as an outdoorsman. He just never imagined he'd be making the transition at 33.

"It's a shame that Mike didn't get to play on a grander stage," Willard said. "He may not have had the strongest arm or been the fastest guy, but he was the toughest guy. He's a lot like Rich Gannon. A lot of guys lack the courage it takes to play that position, but Mike had it."

12-22-2002, 07:51 PM
A proper dose of opiate painkillers would not result in a "narcotic stupor."