Gotta Love Zach's Attitude!

WharfRat

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HYDE: Zach back on track
Published May 26, 2002


It's not his favorite topic. When Zach Thomas is asked what the doctors saw in his neck that caused such pain last season, his head swivels on that neck, shaking back and forth a little. But then he offers a good, one-line attempt to deflect it all into fun.

"There's not much neck for them to see," he says.

The nerves have healed, he says. The pain is all gone, he says. He took the medical results to the Keys last month to meet with a vacationing expert, Dr. Robert Watkins of California, and the conclusion was Thomas suffered an injury, "like a whiplash in a car accident that takes six months to heal unless you're long-necked. Then it can take two years."

Another set-up line.

"Guess I don't have that problem," he says.

Self-importance, ego-overload, lack of perspective -- that's not Thomas' way and never has been. But the past couple of Dolphins seasons show this team stops no one, goes nowhere, does nothing, without a healthy Thomas at middle linebacker.

Two years ago it was an ankle injury. Last year it was the neck injury that downgraded his tackling style, as he says, to, "catching 'em and tripping 'em." The cruel lesson about pro football in general is how fleeting careers are, which introduces the intersection of age, body and the Dolphin fans' offseason demons regarding what can go wrong.

"How old are you, 26?" linebacker Derrick Rodgers, passing by at Dolphins camp, asks Thomas after overhearing a question.

"Twenty-eight," Thomas says.

He's 29 by the season opener. It seems only yesterday, but it is approaching seven seasons of yesterdays ago that Thomas was a surprising fifth-round pick, convincing a South Florida barber he really was a Dolphin and getting flipped keys at a South Beach club as if he was a parking valet.

The sloppy bachelor pad with Larry Izzo is gone, as is Izzo, to New England a year ago. A conversation with Thomas reflects change. He has a home now, with matching decor thanks to his girlfriend. He's going to Chicago soon to meet with his money managers.

And sitting here, on some bleachers after the latest minicamp, Thomas can tick off on one empty-ringed hand the Dolphins who were with him that 1996 rookie team.

"Tim Ruddy ...

"Tim Bowens ...

"Daryl [Gardener] ...

"Shawn Wooden, and he left and came back."

Coaches have changed. Dolphins eras have changed. That first training camp he looked up to Jack Del Rio, one of his boyhood Dallas Cowboy heroes, whom he immediately would replace. Now he looks around Dolphins camp and realizes, "I'm one of the old guys here."

Twenty-nine is still a sweet spot. Twenty-nine is still on top of the mountain, not over the hill. Everyone will mention John Offerdahl, another undersized, full-throttled Dolphins linebacker whose injury-riddled career ended at 29. But Offerdahl was cursed by a three-line defensive system that wore his body down by demanding he collide with 300-pound offensive linemen every play.

A better comparison for Thomas is with Nick Buoniconti, another small-body linebacker who was in a similar system that protected linebackers. Buoniconti played with a cast on his right wrist for two seasons. He sat out 1975 with an injury. But he played well enough over 14 seasons, until retiring at 36, to make the Hall of Fame.

Thomas is smart enough to realize the clock is ticking and the tolls are mounting. He stretches more. He works on flexibility more. He spends three hours a week, on three separate days, horizontal in a hyperbaric chamber he put in his home to pump pure oxygen into his body and replenish any aching areas.

Thomas took a week off after the playoff loss and then started working as hard as ever. All these minicamps? They're fine with him. He would be working out anyhow. And there he is each day after the minicamp workout, running extra sprints with a few other guys.

"This team, as it's made up, has one or two more years left," Thomas said. "That's it. Between who we've got and the money people will be making, everyone here knows we've got to take advantage of everything.

"This is the year we've got the best talent. Just look around. I don't want to take it for granted. I want to take advantage of it. If we keep people healthy ... that's the big thing."

It's only May, still the heart of the offseason, months from playing for real. But it's in this long time between kickoffs that Dolphins fans wonder what's gone right, and what could go wrong. Health is the big thing. Thomas is the biggest on that topic.

"Relax," he says. :cooldude:
 
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