MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Lane Bearden hobbles on and off the field with a brace shielding his right knee, a typical hard-nosed football player fighting through pain.
What's unusual is he's Alabama's punter, not a rugged lineman. And he has a torn knee ligament in his kicking leg.
"In 30 years of coaching, I have never seen a young man do what he's doing," Crimson Tide coach Dennis Franchione said.
Bearden has played the past three games for the 11th-ranked Tide (7-2, 4-1 SEC) after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament while running on a fake punt at Arkansas on Sept. 28.
Moreover, the senior is averaging a career-best 41.4 yards per punt and has put eight of 28 inside the 20-yard line.
Three weeks after his injury, Bearden asked Franchione if he could play again. The doctors had told him he was unlikely to injure the knee further as long as he wore the brace.
"If I could handle the pain," Bearden said, "I could do it."
So he punted five times against Mississippi, landing two inside the 20 and hasn't missed a game since.
His knee hurts most in the minutes after a punt, forcing him to painfully limp off the field.
Bearden said the pain goes away more quickly now - provided he connects squarely.
"If I kick it off the side of my foot, if it doesn't swing just right and the knee pops a little bit, it still hurts pretty bad," he said.
Bearden has gone from punting for a solid hour in practice every day before the injury to doing it four or five times in team drills.
He spends 3 1/2 hours daily in the training room, and is forbidden from trying to make a tackle.
"He is an inspiring story to so many of us that know what he goes through," Franchione said. "Our admiration for him as players and coaches is very high."
Bearden isn't totally comfortable with all the attention he's gotten simply by playing through pain after three years with a punter's typical anonymity.
"I think some people make it out to be a lot bigger deal than it is," said Bearden, who had fluid drained from his knee shortly before Saturday's game with Vanderbilt. "I only play four or five plays a game. Everybody else on the team - offensive linemen, defensive linemen, running backs - they're constantly hurting.
"They're playing the whole game with aches and pains and bruises. Me doing this four or five plays a game really doesn't seem that big a deal to me, and I don't think it should be to anybody else."
Bearden no longer handles kickoffs, but returned to his duties as holder on field goals and extra points against Vandy.
So far, no opposing team has gotten to him on the rush, a potentially scary scene. His teammates have seen to that.
"They told me when I came back that they were going to play as hard as they ever played," Bearden said. "And as long as I got the ball out, (the other team) wouldn't return it and there wouldn't be a punt blocked.
"So far, it's worked pretty good, so I'm just going to keep going."
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