Sunday, November 5, 2000
Wheatley, Ritchie play through pain
By John Clayton
OAKLAND, Calif. -- The angriest Raiders were the heroes. Halfback Tyrone Wheatley refused to talk after the game. Fullback Jon Ritchie talked, but the conversation appeared to be more painful than the ugly bruise marks on his legs from a calf injury.
"I don't like to talk about injuries at all," Ritchie said. "It angers me to the point where, I don't know. The fact that my body is not cooperating with my goals, I feel like it's a betrayal that you can't forgive. Really, I don't take it lightly. I am very angry at the way that I feel."
And remember, this is from players who just whipped the Kansas City Chiefs 49-31 and opened a three-game lead in the AFC West. Most players would be opening champagne. Ritchie and Wheatley need anti-depressants. Their emotions were hurt more than their bodies.
Yet their teammates marveled at their dedication.
Take Wheatley. He was supposed to miss the game because of an ankle injury, a bad ankle injury. Wheatley went onto the field in warmups with no certainty that his ankle would be loose enough for him to play. He ran a few fake running plays and then walked over to coach Jon Gruden and gave him a hug, as if to say, "Coach, I'm playing no matter what."
"I felt he was going to go out and have a good game," teammate Napoleon Kaufman said. "He's such a pound it out type runner, and for not having practiced, he had time to rest his body."
However, Ritchie and Wheatley lamented their long days in the training room to get treatment. They hated it. Nevertheless, both went out and dominated the opening minutes.
Wheatley gained 51 yards on his first three carries, but his third was nearly disastrous. He broke down the sidelines for 38 yards on a sprint draw, but Chiefs safety Greg Wesley twisted Wheatley's good ankle so badly that he spent more than three minutes on the sidelines in agony.
To the locker room he went for a series for retaping and treatment. He returned to the field to test the new injury. Nothing doing. So he went back in the locker room for a second time.
When he returned, Wheatley went to a stationary bike behind the bench and pumped his legs as though he were in the Tour de France. In the second quarter, he busted a 13-yard run and was able to gut out a 112-yard day on 20 carries.
"There is a lot to say for the camaraderie of this team, not only physically but emotionally," Ritchie said. "I would think that everybody else on this team would do this for the other guy. There are a lot of competitors around here."
Wide receiver Tim Brown suffered a badly bruised shoulder being on the hands team on an onside kick in the final seconds of the game. "I'll be fine," Brown said. "I'll play."
One player who couldn't play was kicker Sebastian Janikowski, who had a celluitis infection on his left foot. It's a bacterial aggrevation of the soft tissue area of the skin. Janikowski, all 250 pounds of him stuffed into the Raiders' black uniform, walked to the field and moved like George Blanda in an alumni game.
He tried a 20-yard field goal in warmups. He strolled off waddling in agony. Bears left tackle Blake Brockermeyer suffered a similar infection earlier this season, missed two games and spent several days in the hospital.
Punter Shane Lechler handled both kicking and punting duties to fill in for Janikowski. "There's not been many guys that have done that," Gruden said.
"No. 9 has the attitude and persona you want to have in a player," Brown said. "There are a lot of injuries on this team. We just played through them."
It caused the coaching staff to pool their thoughts before the game. A week ago, the Raiders were horrible in the red zone and had to settle for four Janikowski field goals in five attempts. This time, they knew they couldn't ask Lechler, the punter, to do the same.
They were flawless in their red zone, scoring on six of seven opportunities. Lechler missed a 33-yard field goal. No problem. The Raiders put 49 points on the board.
There were plenty of heroes in the Raiders' locker room even though it pained some to talk. They let their actions speak.
John Clayton is the senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.