It was in Michael Faulds' most frail moment last fall that Greg Marshall discovered all he needed about the on-field leader of the Western football team.
The Mustangs were struggling at Queen's and Marshall, then the offensive co-ordinator and now head coach, couldn't understand why his quarterback wasn't getting the usual zip on his passes.
"I said to Michael, 'You need to get more on those hitch passes,' " Marshall recalled yesterday on the first day of training camp at TD Waterhouse Stadium. "He said, 'I know -- I'm having a little trouble gripping the ball.' Then, I looked at his hand and there's no knuckle and everything's ballooned up.
"Two series earlier, he banged his hand on a helmet, it looked like a mess and he was still out there."
Faulds, a 23-year-old from Eden Mills near Guelph, would have kept playing with a broken finger if Marshall had not noticed. After a cast was put on the hand and was unable to throw a football, Faulds tried in vain to convince the coaches to let him play in the playoffs against Laurier on special teams.
"All week he practised on special teams and it got to the point where you had to tell him 'no' and start thinking about next year," Marshall said. "You want him to heal and what happens if he jams the cast trying to make a tackle? It was a risk."
There are some who will call Faulds fragile. This is his third season as starter at Western after transferring from the University of Toledo and he's been on the injured list for part of his first two years.
But he has been called "the smartest player out there" by some of his teammates. He is also one of the strongest, busting out 20 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press this week in individual testing.
He is, as Marshall can attest, a tough customer.
"I'm completely healthy -- you had to start easy by just gripping the ball first but now it's 100 per cent," Faulds said.
"You always hate to miss games. It was a freak thing last year. The guys did a great job beating Windsor in the mud and gave Laurier all they can handle and I wanted to be out there. I stayed (in London) again during the offseason to train. We couldn't use the stadium field because they were working on it (installing the new artificial surface) so we went on the field in behind and because there was hardly any rain, it was always hard as a rock."
Marshall said his biggest job this year will be to keep Faulds healthy. That won't be easy, considering how the quarterback plays the game.
"What impresses you the most about Michael is also what worries you," Marshall said. "He's not a guy who wants to slide to avoid the tackle -- he wants to go right after the guy and try to hit him. We'll try to reel him in but once the game starts and the adrenaline goes, who knows? We know we have to a better job of protecting him."
Backup quarterback is a concern. Mark Howard, who proved an adequate leader in Faulds' absence, is gone and Hayden Marks is no longer with the team.
There are eight others pushing for the job. One is six-foot-six former Fanshawe basketball starter Pat Wright, who transferred to Western after helping the Falcons to a berth int the national tournament.
"I missed football and I don't care where I play -- quarterback, receiver -- as long as they give me a uniform," said the 20-year-old Sarnia native. "I think it helps to play with a great team in any sport and we were a close group at Fanshawe. The first undefeated basketball team there."