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UTES' MR. ADVERSITY SOON TO BID FAREWELL

Craig Rydalch'S basketball career is coming to a close, and Coach Rick Majerus is sad to see him go - which is more than he could have said three years ago. Back then, Majerus watched this slow-footed, husky kid with a bad ankle and gave him some advice: "Go back to Dixie (College)."

Majerus was the new coach at the University of Utah then, and he had an abrasive, confrontational style. He used unprintable language and chewed his players out up close and personal; Rydalch was a returned missionary for his church and an Eagle Scout who had never been called anything worse than a ding-a-ling. To say the least, they didn't hit it off. Rydalch thought the coach was too insensitive; Majerus thought the kid was too soft, not tough.Imagine that. Rydalch not tough. A year later Majerus named him team captain, an honor the coach bestows almost reverently. He says he loves Rydalch; says he would want his son to be like him. Then again, on second thought perhaps he would change his mind. Who would wish that on his son? Who would wish his son to be an accident waiting to happen, a poster child for orthopedic surgeons or Blue Cross and Blue Shield.

Let's see, last April Rydalch underwent major reconstructive surgery on his right ankle to correct an old injury. It was supposed to be a routine little arthroscopy, but when the doctor looked into the joint through the scope, he found that he could see clean through to the other side. That's how far the joint could be pulled apart. The ligaments were gone. So surgeons rebuilt Rydalch an ankle much the way you build a house, with drills, screws and materials (in this case, tendons borrowed from the foot).

Rydalch, who was none too quick to begin with, was nearly pedestrian with a bum ankle, and then fall practice began. He tried to go too fast too soon because he knows only one way to play: hard. The ankle rebelled. It wasn't until mid-January that he could cut sharply. By then his senior season was nearly half finished - and he had other problems.

Rydalch fell to the floor against Bradley and tore two ligaments in his right (shooting) wrist. He has continued to play anyway. He tapes the wrist, otherwise, it likes to pop out of joint. Doctors talk of replacing two ligaments in the wrist this summer.

They'll have to get in line behind the dentist. Rydalch caught a flying elbow with his mouth against Hawaii last month, which left him with hairline fractures of the incisors and two molars cracked and chipped. One of the teeth will have to be rebuilt after the season ends.

"It's been a frustrating season," says Rydalch, rubbing a yellowish, purplish bruise under his left eye - the result of another whistling elbow, this time in practice. "I've been so limited in what I can do." Rydalch said this just moments after last Saturday's Hawaii game, as he was limping from the locker room to the training room. He had twisted his ankle that night - the good ankle.

Majerus often wonders aloud if he should even play Rydalch. He's been torn between his heart and his head all season. The heart says play the guy; the head says put him on the bench. Earlier in the season Majerus tried to play Rydalch his usual 20 or so minutes, but finally had to cut his playing time. It was a hard thing to accept, because if anyone has become a Majerus-type player, it is Rydalch. He's undertalented, hard-working, self-made and, oh yes, tough.

"I love him because he's a plodder," Majerus once said. "On the court and in class. He keeps trying. He's got great determination."

Rydalch's South Summit High School team played zone defense simply because Rydalch - then a 30-point scorer - was too slow to play man-to-man. Now the roles are reversed. The 6-foot-4 Rydalch is no longer a scorer, and he has made himself into a solid, relentless, bruising man-to-man defender, playing against players three or four inches taller than he is. Steady, physical, aggressive, persistent, he can drive an offensive player to the limits of frustration. Why do you think he catches all those elbows? Why do you think Johnny Melvin (UTEP) and Rob Robbins (New Mexico), among others, have tried to punch him out?

"Because he sticks his face in there," says Majerus. "Because he's king of the floorburn."

Majerus' initial opinion of Rydalch was considerably different, but then he knew almost nothing about him at the time. Rydalch had spent one autumn at Weber State, two years in England while serving a mission in which he gained as many pounds as converts, and a year at Dixie College before arriving at Utah, where he was inherited by the new coach.

Majerus couldn't know about the kid's determination. This was a guy who, as a boy, didn't merely build a homemade court. He dug a 4 x 4-foot hole five feet deep, working six hours every day after school for two weeks, in which to pour the cement that would hold the standard. When it was finished, he went to work. The start of the 10 o'clock news signaled the Rydalch family to call Craig off the court and into bed.

The first thing Majerus saw in Rydalch was a player of limited athletic ability, slow to jump and run ("If there's a hotel fire, he'll perish," Majerus likes to say). But worse than that, Majerus thought he was a selfish player and that he lacked toughness. If so, he's changed.

"The first six weeks were tough," says Majerus. "After that I liked him."

Rydalch became Utah's sixth man last season, subordinating his own game to become a defensive stopper, a some-time scorer, a rebounder and anything else that was needed.

"He's the heart and soul of this team," Majerus has said, which might partially explain the Utes' demise this season. Sadly, Rydalch is not finishing his career in the way he had hoped. With a bad ankle and wrist, that was too much to ask. He can't play defense as he once did (no one has even tried to punch him lately), and his jump shot is, well, don't even ask.

"I feel very bad for Craig," says Majerus. "He has been Mister Adversity. It will be a sad day for me when he leaves."