By Nick Wagoner
It was supposed to be a happy homecoming for Leonard Little when he returned to Asheville High to have his No. 30 jersey retired last week.
And it was a great night according to Little, despite all of the sadness surrounding his earlier arrival in his hometown.
“It was real special, especially for a high school team that says your jersey will never be worn again,” Little said Friday. “That’s a very special honor for anybody. I respect them for that and thank everyone in that city for that.”
Of course, moments of joy and happiness have been few and far between for Little in the past few weeks after the shooting death of his brother. Little learned of his brother’s death after the game against Indianapolis on Oct. 17.
Soon after, he returned home and did not return to the team until the middle of last week’s bye. Little missed wins against Jacksonville and New Orleans and returned to a 4-4 team that was floundering when he departed.
While Little was away, he shed a few pounds, but was able to put those pounds back on in the past week and is back to his playing weight. Of course, he also had trouble keeping connected with what the Rams were doing on Sundays.
“It was hard for me to see the games, because they didn’t come on down south,” Little said.
With no computer access at his mother’s home, Little went to another piece of technology to follow his teammates and friends.
“I would get on my cell phone and refresh every play,” Little said. “That’s how I kept up with those guys. That’s the only thing I could do. When something happened and it came up on my cell phone I would get happy or get mad, so that’s all I could do really is try to keep up with the games on my cell phone. I’m glad modern technology has come that far.”
Little’s phone didn’t just help him follow games on Sundays. It was also his connection to his teammates, who came through with an outpouring of support for the difficult times Little was going through.
“It’s been great,” Little said. “I love playing with these guys, because they are real supportive, and everyone on this team gets along. That’s the reason this team is not like other teams where we can do everything together and stuff like that. They’ve been a great support system here, and I’m glad I had this from my teammates.”
In Little’s first chance to talk to the media after his return, it was clear that it was difficult for him to discuss much aside from football. In time, that will probably change, but now his healing is best left to concentrating and focusing on football.
Little seemingly has done a good job of that this week, looking particularly quick and sharp in practice.
“I’m doing well,” Little said. “The only thing I can do is go out and help my teammates win and help this team get better. I don’t want to interrupt anything that has been going on the past two weeks. The only thing I want to do is help this team win and make plays for this team.”
The timing of Little’s return couldn’t be better. The Rams are in need of a win at Seattle on Sunday if they want to keep their NFC West Division title hopes alive. Even Tyoka Jackson, the man who replaced Little, says having Little back is going to make a big difference.
“Now that’s big,” Jackson said. “When you get your best defensive player back, obviously that’s going to help. I am happy to have him back. He’s happy to be back. We are full strength on defense now so we are ready to roll.”
BRUCE READY, WAITING: If he has his way, receiver Isaac Bruce will pull the old No. 80 jersey over his pads and line up against the Seahawks on Sunday.
Even a toe injury that has kept him out since week three against Tennessee hasn’t been enough for frustration to set in on the always-positive Bruce.
“I never get frustrated,” Bruce said. “Injuries are part of the game and this one happened to fall on me. I’ll be ready to play.”
Bruce returned to practice pretty much full tilt on Monday and made it through three more practices without a hitch. He is listed as questionable on the injury report, meaning he has a 50-50 shot at playing.
Coach Joe Vitt said the staff would evaluate Bruce’s status Friday afternoon and into Saturday. But most indications seem to point to Bruce being ready to go Sunday afternoon.
One worry that might be there for Bruce is readjusting to game speed and hitting since he hasn’t been hit in so long. But one thing he knows for sure is that he better be sharp if and when he makes his return.
“I could use some WD 40, (because) rusty isn’t going to work,” Bruce said.
NÜTTEN UNCERTAIN: Left guard Tom Nütten picked up the starting spot for rookie Claude Terrell against Jacksonville when Terrell was inactive because of a neck injury.
Usually neck injuries aren’t contagious, but in this case it might be. Nütten actually has suffered from a neck problem for the better part of the past month.
Nütten assumed that the bye week would allow him an opportunity to heal, but that wasn’t the case.
“I didn’t really think about it because I thought after a couple extra days it would go away,” Nütten said. “It didn’t and I came in on Monday morning and the worse it was.”
Nütten went in for an x ray and the doctors found a bulging disc in Nütten’s neck. The injury forced Nütten to miss most of this week’s practices and he is listed as questionable for Sunday.
Nütten actually had neck surgery before his first retirement in 2003 and knows that he can’t take any risks with it, especially considering the amount of violent collisions an offensive lineman has every week.
“It will be pretty much up to me because it isn’t going to go away,” Nütten said. “It’s more how it feels. It’s nothing threatening but with a neck you never want to take any chances and play around with it. Hopefully I will feel better tomorrow and wake up Sunday and it will be gone…wishful thinking but that’s what I am hanging on to.”
HAWKS HURTING: While it seems the Rams, for the most part, have gotten healthier in recent weeks, the Seahawks have been going in the other direction.
Already without safety Ken Hamlin for the rest of the year, Seattle will be without receiver Darrell Jackson and linebacker Jamie Sharper on Sunday.
In addition, safety Michael Boulware, tackle Wayne Hunter, linebacker D.D. Lewis and defensive tackle Marcus Tubbs are listed as questionable. Losing Boulware and Tubbs could be particularly hurtful if they can’t go, leaving Seattle vulnerable in the secondary and up the middle.
Boulware practiced Thursday and Friday, though and appears to be ready to go.