NORMAN, Okla., Sept. 27 - In a nearly empty gym 30 minutes after a two-hour practice, Wayne Chambers is running sprints alone. He must keep the blood pumping through his thickly muscled legs, particularly the right one, which has a bullet lodged in the hamstring.
InsertArt(2025366)“IT DOESN’T FEEL THE SAME,” the Oklahoma linebacker said. “It gets stiff sometimes, like it’s a little heavy. I’ve got to get it warmed up sometimes.”
A stray bullet at a party nearly ended Chambers’ career. Instead, the sophomore anchors the No. 1-ranked Sooners’ vaunted defense. His wound isn’t painful, but it’s a reminder that Chambers almost lost the ability to run.
Less than three months ago, Chambers was lying in a hospital bed with a crack in his pelvis and a bullet in his leg. He wasn’t sure whether he’d be able to play football again or whether he could recapture the athleticism that made him one of the nation’s most coveted linebackers at Grandview (Mo.) High School.
But here Chambers is, days after his steady performance in the Sooners’ 59-24 win over UCLA last week earned him a game ball.
“He exceeded all our expectations and filled in in a great way,” co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Brent Venables said. “He hadn’t practiced since last spring. We weren’t sure what he’d be able to do — it was last week until he had the ability to go full speed.”
It all started on a Saturday night in July, when a group of Oklahoma players went to a party at a Veteran of Foreign Wars hall a few miles south of campus. Hundreds of people milled in and around the hall, and the thumping music beckoned the players inside.
At some point, a fight started and gunfire cracked through the hall.
Chambers and junior receiver Ataleo Ford fought their way out of the building to escape the fray. Once outside and safely away from the mad scramble, both players noticed they’d been struck by bullets — Chambers in the pelvis, Ford in the leg.
“We both slowed down and realized, ’Dang, we’ve been hit,”’ Ford said. “I just hoped it didn’t jack up our season.”
They jumped in a car and returned to Norman, where Chambers and Ford went to a hospital.
A 23-year-old man has been charged with shooting with intent to kill. Investigators think the shooting stemmed from a clash between members of rival gangs. Police said Chambers, Ford and the other Oklahoma football players weren’t involved in any wrongdoing.
“It was just a fight, and I happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Chambers said. “Bullets don’t have a name on them.”
Rehabilitation began a few days after Chambers hobbled out of the hospital. His tolerance for pain would determine how fast he’d get back on the field.
“My whole attitude the whole time was that I was coming back,” Chambers said.
The 6-foot-3, 232-pounder spent much of the summer on a stationary bike while his teammates practiced. Already a backup to Butkus Award nominee Lance Mitchell, Chambers didn’t figure to get much playing time this season.
Once the season started and he was on the sideline, Chambers was resigned to taking a medical redshirt this year.
But in the third game of the season against Fresno State, Mitchell went down with a season-ending knee injury. Chambers was tabbed as Mitchell’s replacement even though he hadn’t practiced at full speed since April.
“Wayne has always been mentally into it,” Venables said. “He’s got a good feel for the game. He was a natural fit.”
Before a school-record crowd of 83,317 and a national television audience, Chambers made the first start of his career against UCLA.
Though a little rusty, Chambers had four solo tackles and six assists as Oklahoma held UCLA to just 271 yards of offense and two touchdowns.
“Wayne was very solid in the middle and tackled well,” coach Bob Stoops said. “He looked pretty good out there.”
Chambers also provided inspiration for Ford, who’s still struggling to get on the field after another injury during summer practices.
“He just kept fighting and now my boy is doing it,” Ford said. “Just like him, I know I’m going to be back.”
Chambers is the starter in the middle for the immediate future, but he’ll have to fight off challenges from a promising freshman and the return of Mitchell next season.
Still, Chambers figures he can handle whatever comes his way on the football field.
“I’m lucky to just be alive,” he said. “I always remind myself of that everyday.”
© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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