Gass beats the odds

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 8:29 AM ET

Teammates used to call him Forrest Gump, but the storyline that makes Edmonton Eskimos linebacker A.J. Gass intriguing is closer to Dead Man Walking, at least in cinematic terms.

A year ago at training camp, the Esks' middle linebacker was getting good-natured guff from teammates, who watched Gass discard his clunky knee braces after a comeback from major knee surgeries during the 2001 and 2002 seasons.

This spring, another 12 months removed from the scalpel, the 29-year-old Fresno State grad is gliding through traffic and scampering around like a pup. It's as if he's tapped into some kind of fountain of youth.

In a way he has, ironically enough, thanks to cadaver ligaments used to rebuild his left knee and some other odds and ends salvaged from the slab to repair his right knee. You heard right.

New life for A.J.

"I feel amazing," Gass said. "This is probably the best I've felt since university. I'm running effortlessly. I've got a lot of bounce in my legs and a lot of spring in my step. With that, the confidence follows."

In 2001, Gass tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee and had them reconstructed. Gass blew out his left knee in Ottawa in 2002, and that's when doctors put him back together using cadaver parts.

BOTH KNEES BRACED

After starting 2003 with both knees braced and, in the opinion of many, facing the end of his career, Gass discarded one brace before the annual Labour Day game against Calgary. He rid himself of the other at camp last year and, after being pushed to the practice roster in favour of Kelvin Powell, played all 18 games for the first time in his eight-year CFL career.

This time around, Gass is being pushed for a job by Glen Young and Jason Lamar. The problem for Lamar and Young is that Gass, healthier than he's been in years, is pushing back.

STUBBORN AND RESILIENT

"I'm extremely stubborn," laughs Gass. "I'm resilient. We've had some really good athletes come here in the past. Lamar is big and strong and fast and he's been a CFL all-star. The competition is always there."

Yesterday it was Lamar, who split the 2004 season between Hamilton and Montreal, limping around with a bad quadriceps while Gass ran the drills. Coming off career highs with 65 defensive tackles and 16 more on special teams, the hard-nosed Bellflower, California, native doesn't look like he intends on relinquishing his starting job.

"He knows he can line up and not worry about either one of his knees and let his athletic ability take over," said head coach Danny Maciocia.

"He's had a great camp.

"Every year, he's the guy who has people thinking, 'They're going to have to upgrade. They're going to have to change.' Every year he's there, No. 1 on the depth chart.

"That's exactly the case now. He's a great leader and a determined individual. He's a throwback. He's old-school."

Gass has gone from needing a cane to walk and having one foot out the door two years ago to signing a new deal for one year plus an option. He keeps one of his old braces at home. It's gathering dust.

"I look at it," Gass said. "It's a reminder of where I was. Right next to it, I've got a picture of me holding the Grey Cup.

"That reminds me of where I've been. Coming out on to the field every day feeling like this, it reminds me of where I want to go."


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