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TESTING THE LIMIT

If this season has taught the Bucs anything, it's that Jon Gruden has a high threshold for pain.

He ignored the soreness from the fractured left fibula and left orbital bone of guard Kerry Jenkins. He hardly noticed Keenan McCardell's broken left scapula. He shrugged off Brad Johnson's cracked left ribs and sucked it up when Joe Jurevicius sprained his left knee.

Ronde Barber had screws placed in his broken left thumb Monday, and Gruden never grimaced. Center Jeff Christy had his right knee operated on during the bye week and Chucky felt like dancing. Warren Sapp was stiff as a statue with lower back spasms Sunday and Gruden went looking for limbo sticks.

"Hey, I'll be honest with you, I think it's my role to let some of these guys know, "If you can go, we need you,' " Gruden said. "Some of these guys are indeed hard to replace. They all have strong wills, otherwise you wouldn't have those kinds of conversations. The water is cold. Sometimes, I just try to push them in and try to help them out, try to help them through it."

When Sapp awoke Sunday morning, he immediately sought treatment for spasms that threatened to keep him out of the Carolina game. As always, Gruden was there to take away the sting, telling Sapp "you hold my keys and my wallet.'

"He said, "I can't go anywhere without you,' " Sapp said. "That's the first time I've had that happen. Because Tony (Dungy's) mentality was, I can win without you. Tony has always been like that. I can win without you."

Johnson says Gruden plays a valuable role in keeping players on the field.

"Jon might show you a picture of somebody who played with the same injury way back when or something like that," Johnson said.

Not that you have to drain the whirlpool to get Bucs players out of the trainer's room.

Though injuries are part of the NFL and Tampa Bay is not the exception, the Bucs' playoff run has taken on a discernible limp. But veterans learn to play with pain and are as concerned with staying employed as remaining healthy.

"If you can be on the field, you've got to get on the field," said Johnson, who planned to play one week after fracturing his ribs before getting the flu. "For me, I don't know what my window is. That's how I got my starting job in the league was when Warren Moon got hurt. That's what happened to Wally Pipp (when Lou Gehrig took over at first base for the Yankees). That's how Brett Favre got his job. There's a lot of motivating factors. That's just one of about 10."

Jenkins was injured during a Monday night game against the Rams. An X-ray revealed a fractured left fibula, which might keep many players out for several weeks. Jenkins started the next game at Cincinnati.

"That's part of football, that's the way I was taught. Everybody plays with pain," Jenkins said. "Especially at this level, when there's only so many roster spots and you need every single player. Then again, you don't want to get hurt and miss a couple games and somebody steps up and they do good, I mean, that's how I got my shot. Somebody went down, I stepped in and had a couple good games and that's basically how I got my foot in the door. And that's how a lot of guys get their foot in the door. You don't want to create an opportunity for somebody else."

Jenkins finally missed a game when he suffered a fractured orbital bone near his left eye. He still see flashes of light in his left eye and has to wear a tinted shield.

"They told me it would be safe to play," Jenkins said. "I'm not going to go out there and risk losing my eyesight or something like that. Once you step on the football field, everybody knows there's risks involved.

"I'm more concerned about the eye. It's not totally healed yet. But we'll see. I don't think it's going to be anything major. I do have issues with it, but it was more of the fracture of the orbital bone that was a concern rather than the vision."

In the macho world of the NFL, perhaps no position absorbs more injuries than the offensive line. Christy played nine games with piercing pain in his right knee before having arthroscopic surgery during the bye week.

"What drives me to do it is, it's kind of an O-lineman trademark. It's toughness and durability," Christy said. "That's really the only way we get to make money. They don't say "Boy, that guard really took over that game.' That doesn't happen. The only way we make money is by not missing plays, not missing starts. I'm not saying that's the main motivation, but that's instilled in you from the get-go. Now, it's not even a question. I'm going to play Sunday unless you cut my leg off."

McCardell agrees. "Your body gets used to having three days of rest before you have to go out and play again," he said. "As my buddy Keyshawn would say, to get in the car wrecks. We've got three days to get back into a car wreck. Your body just gets in that type of mentality."

On Wednesday, Gruden was asked if tackle Kenyatta Walker, who has an ankle sprain, was the only player not "allowed' to practice. "I didn't say he wasn't allowed to practice, I said he didn't practice," Gruden said. "(Anthony) McFarland wasn't allowed to practice" because of a fractured right forearm.

At the time, Gruden wasn't feeling Walker's sprained ankle.

"That's part of my job, just like any other coach or any other motivator. But I would never want to ask a guy to do something physically that he was unable to do," Gruden said.

"I think it's a tribute to the guys we have. For Warren Sapp to do what he did last week with back spasms, a 310-pound guy getting double-teamed, that tells you a lot. Ronde Barber is out here practicing today, one day after having surgery. McFarland is mad at me because I won't let him play yet with three bones broken in his arm. Jenkins is playing with a cracked orbital and a broken fibula. The quarterback (Johnson) is playing with broken ribs. You've got to love these Bucs."

A little push never hurts.

TEXT OF DRAWING ACCOMPANYING STORY NOT PROVIDED FOR ELECTRONIC LIBRARY. PLEASE SEE MICROFILM.

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