Originally created 08/05/99

Hanspard has golden opportunity



GREENVILLE, S.C. -- When he wakes up, Byron Hanspard sees the scar. When the Falcons running back flexes his left knee, he invariably reaches down to rub the scar. When he finishes practice and removes the knee sleeve, the scar is there to greet him.

"It's never going to go away," Hanspard said as the Atlanta Falcons concluded their first full week of practice Wednesday.

"No matter how hard I pray, no matter what I do, that scar is going to be there with me. It's not like I'm meditating to it or rubbing it for good luck. This is the path the Lord has chosen for me, and this is the path I will take."

A couple of things to know about Hanspard before we proceed any further: 1. The former Texas Tech running back is trying to resurrect his football career after tearing the left anterior cruciate ligament and the patella tendon a year ago in the Falcons' final preseason game; and 2. he's a licensed Pentecostal minister, one whose speech is laced with religious references.

You need to know the latter part to understand how this former Doak Walker Award winner has coped with the daily travails of rebuilding his knee. Whenever his comeback try stalls, whenever he thinks he might not make it, Hanspard relies on his faith.

"When God heals, he heals completely," Hanspard said. "And I'm happy to say that I've been healed completely."

Hanspard's health is even more of a concern for Falcons' brass, especially as the Jamal Anderson holdout drags into August. The longer Anderson stays away from the Furman University training camp, the more opportunities Hanspard and second-year back Ken Oxendine receive to earn more playing time.

Anderson says he's prepared to sit out the season, meaning the Falcons will need to have a contingency plan if the Pro Bowl back follows through on his threat.

Of the four tailbacks in camp, Hanspard has the most carries in the last two seasons (53 for 335 yards in 1997) but remains the team's largest question mark. Oxendine, a second-year player from Virginia Tech, had 18 carries a year ago. Rookie Steve Hookfin is a free-agent signee from Ohio University. And retread Harold Green, waived by the Falcons after last season, re-signed Sunday to a one-year contract when Columbus' Gary Downs was lost for the season.

A year ago, the Falcons rushed for 20 touchdowns -- 16 by Anderson, and two each by Chris Chandler and fullback Bob Christian. And of the 516 Falcons carries, Anderson logged 410, a new NFL record.

So you can understand the need to find a suitable backup, if not a temporary replacement.

"Byron's competing for the starting job," head coach Dan Reeves said. "With the situation we're in now, his presence is needed. The question with him is how healthy his knee is and whether or not he's durable enough for us to count on him."

Hanspard's strength as always been his speed and his chance at breaking a big play. As a rookie in 1997, he set a Falcons record with the longest run from scrimmage, a 77-yard run against the Raiders. His 57-yard run against Denver is eighth longest, and a 53-yard run against Philadelphia is 12th longest.

A serious knee injury hampers that home run ability, even if Hanspard will tell you he has yet to lose a step. At 5 feet 10, 200 pounds, he's not exactly in the Anderson/Oxendine big back mold. The Falcons running game is geared toward a bruising, ball-control, between-the-tackles type of runner.

And the kickoff return role that he thrived in as a rookie -- he averaged 24.7 yards a return and scored two touchdowns -- has been usurped by receiver Tim Dwight.

"What's my role on this team? That's a good question to ask," said Hanspard, who is restricted by team doctors to one practice a day. "I don't see Jamal's not being here as an opportunity. I've got to prove I belong no matter who's here or not.

"After passing camp (in May) I knee my knee was OK. Sure, I had jitters getting hit for the first time. But I held up. I've never had any doubts that I'd be back on the football field. I know I can play and contribute again."

On Wednesday, he looked fluid at hitting holes but tentative when having to make a cut back.

"He's got a good season under his belt, and when he's healthy he's a guy who can make big plays," running backs coach George Sefcik said. "Mentally, I think the more he practices, the more comfortable he feels with it."

And the more he plays, the more comfortable the coaches are with him.

"So far, it's been so good," Reeves said. "He hasn't had the swelling in the knee that you normally see with that type of injury. We're going to be slow with him. I want to make sure he's 100 percent before we let him loose."

Rick Dorsey can be reached at (706) 823-3219 or rdorsey@augustachronicle.com.

Replacing Jamal
With Atlanta's all-pro running back Jamal Anderson holding out, other backs in camp have a chance to make an impression. Those who will be trying to replace Anderson's NFL record 410 carries and 1,846 yards include:

Byron Hanspard: Former Texas Tech star missed all of last season after severe left knee injury in final preseason game of 1998.

Ken Oxendine: The 6-1, 223-pounder rushed for 50 yards and no TDs last season as a rookie third-team halfback out of Virginia Tech.

Harold Green: The former South Carolina star was re-signed this week after Gary Downs went down for the season with a knee injury.

Eric Lane: Second-year back who was on the New York Giants roster last season.

Steve Hookfin: Rookie free agent.

Total yards rushing in 1998:
Falcons: 2,101
Anderson: 1,846

Rushing TDs in 1998:
Falcons: 20
Anderson: 16

Rushes in 1998:
Falcons: 518
Anderson: 410