By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
RENTON — The words were only mentioned in passing, a remote possibility suggested by a doctor 1,100 miles away.
Dr. Robert Watkins, a renowned back specialist located in Los Angeles, heard the symptoms and told Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck that his season might be over because of a bulging disk. The nerve damage Hasselbeck had described over the phone, Watkins told him, could keep the quarterback out for two or three months.
That was in October. Since then, Hasselbeck flew to Southern California to meet with Dr. Watkins, got a full checkup and an exercise plan, and eventually found hope of playing again this year.
And now, almost six weeks since he last played in a game, the Seahawks’ quarterback is on the verge of returning to the field to play out the string of what has become a hopeless season.
Why come back at all?
“We’ve all been on teams where guys are in the training room and could play but don’t. That’s the quickest way to lose respect,” Hasselbeck said after taking part in Wednesday’s practice with his Seahawks teammates. “And the quickest way to earn respect is to give it all you’ve got. … That’s what we’ve had here for a long time, and I’m not going to change one thing because of our record.”
Wednesday marked Hasselbeck’s first full practice since the first week of October. He has watched the Seahawks fall to 2-7 — from the sideline at home games and on television when the team has played on the road — and is ready to rejoin his teammates on the field this Sunday, when the Seahawks host the Arizona Cardinals.
Before meeting with Dr. Watkins last month, Hasselbeck was warned about the possibility of not playing again this season. So just having a chance to play again comes as a relief.
“I’m very, very thankful to the trainers and everyone who helped me get back,” said Hasselbeck, who first started experiencing back problems during the preseason in August, “because it was not easy. … There were weeks when I felt like I could play, but I just couldn’t get cleared (by team doctors).”
After Hasselbeck suffered a knee injury in the New York Giants game on Oct. 5, the Seahawks’ doctors told him that the lack of strength in his leg had more to do with the bulging disk than the knee injury. He was told that he might miss some game action, at which time Hasselbeck scoffed and went to Southern California in search of a second opinion.
“I was a little angry. I said: I’ll go see somebody else,” Hasselbeck admitted Wednesday. “But (Dr. Watkins) agreed exactly with them.”
That was when Watkins told him over the phone that his season might be over.
“At one point, without seeing me, he said: ‘Listen, you probably won’t come back this year,’” Hasselbeck said on Wednesday. “‘You won’t need surgery, but you probably won’t play. You’ll need a couple months (to heal).’”
Hasselbeck has spent the good part of the past six weeks doing tedious rehab work. Last Friday marked the first step in his comeback, as he threw a few passes in 7-on-7 drills.
On Wednesday, Hasselbeck took another big step by practicing with the No. 1 offense. Afterward, he said he felt good and expected to be cleared by doctors to play in Sunday’s game.
“It felt good,” Hasselbeck said. “I’ve been working really hard. I’ve wanted to get back for a long time, and the first step was getting cleared by the doctors to practice. Hopefully, practice all week goes well. And I think (Wednesday) was a good start.”
Quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor said after Wednesday’s session that the 33-year-old quarterback looked good.
“It was nice to have him back out there,” Lazor said. “He was sweating. I felt good about it.”
Before Wednesday’s practice, head coach Mike Holmgren said that he is approaching the week as if Hasselbeck will start Sunday.
“It’s business as usual,” Holmgren said.
When asked what he needed to see from Hasselbeck during practices, Holmgren said: “I have to see that he’s breathing and practicing. That’s all I have to see.”
Hasselbeck is doing all of that. He’s eager to get back on the field and eager to help his teammates.
And as for the possibility of doing more damage to the back? That’s not something that overly worries Hasselbeck.
“I could have, if I had rushed back,” Hasselbeck said, adding that direct contact was unlikely to do further damage. “But I don’t anticipate that.
“I’m not taking a conservative approach here. I’m definitely pushing the envelope here. But it’s football; it’s a violent game.”