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HARPER, BUCS BREATHE A BIG SIGH OF RELIEF

It wasn't the debut Alvin Harper anticipated with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The speedy receiver envisioned himself catching a long pass, exciting the crowd and giving them a taste of what they can expect this season. Instead, he was injured on his team's sixth offensive play and probably will miss the remainder of the preseason.The latter was actually good news for the Bucs, who hope their prized offseason acquisition will be back for the Sept. 3 regular-season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles.

When Harper crumpled to the ground, clutching his left knee in the first quarter of Saturday night's 9-3 exhibition loss to the New York Jets, he and his teammates feared the worst.

"I thought I was gone," he said after learning doctors expect him to be sidelined only 3-5 weeks. "When I was laying there, it was kind of bent back. I just saw it dangling. I said, `I'm finished.' "

X-rays taken in the locker room were negative, however, and an MRI performed Sunday confirmed that Harper, who signed a four-year, $10.66 million contract in March, only had a mild sprain of the medial collateral ligament in the knee.

"It was the best possible news we could have received," coach Sam Wyche said.

What figures to keep the fifth-year pro out longer is another injury - a mid-foot sprain - sustained on the play that could have ended his season before it even started. His left leg was heavily bandaged from the knee down and he figures to be on crutches for at least three or four days.

The injuries occurred on a third-down running play in which Tampa Bay's Errict Rhett carried off right tackle and plowed up the back of the receiver's leg at the end of a 4-yard gain.

Harper was positioning himself to block Jets safety Todd Scott, who pushed the receiver to fend off the would-be block just after the contact with Rhett. The next thing Harper remembers is teammates Lawrence Dawsey and Hardy Nickerson standing over him, praying.

"I think everybody was very concerned because it looked so bad the way it happened," Wyche said. "Those kind of things can get twisted the wrong way and it can knock you out the whole season. At that moment, he was in a lot of pain."

"I don't want to speculate . . . but I'm a quick healer. I definitely plan to play in the first game," said Harper, who has only missed one regular-season game in four NFL seasons.