49er's return to form
January 11, 2003
Sutherland cleans up act, gets his job back
Kevin Lynch, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tampa, Fla. -- It was sometime in the second quarter when Vinny Sutherland decided he had to get out. The unemployed return man and wide receiver had seen enough of his former school's performance.
He was watching his beloved Purdue Boilermakers on television about two weeks ago in his South Florida digs. Purdue had fallen behind Washington 17-0 in the Sun Bowl, and Sutherland, a 5-foot-8, 190-pound ball of nervous energy, decided it was time to get a haircut.
Maybe it was Purdue's mistake-marred performance that made him anxious. Maybe it was the fact he was watching football, a profession that didn't want him. Maybe it was the frustration of waiting for an NFL team to beckon -- telling him someone had turned an ankle and he was needed immediately.
Before racing out the door on that eve of New Year's, the Palm Beach County record holder in the 100-meter dash heard the phone ring. It was the 49ers. Their returner, Cedrick Wilson, had turned an ankle. Sutherland was needed immediately to come in for a workout.
Sutherland was on the next plane to the Bay Area. By New Year's Day, he was impressing Niners' coaches with his ever-present speed. By Jan. 2, he was signed. Now, Sutherland heads back to Florida to play in an NFC divisional playoff against the Buccaneers as the most grateful man on the 49ers' 53-man roster.
Sutherland, who was the team's returner last season, has assumed those duties once again. Wilson has regained his health, but isn't a natural returner. His muff of a second-quarter punt last Sunday against the Giants led to a touchdown.
Sutherland has returned kicks his entire career, and was the favorite to win the job going into last summer's training camp.
But a tender hamstring and an ignominious history with alcohol, automobiles and the law conspired against him. Within a two-year period, Sutherland was arrested three times on suspicion of driving under the influence. The last time was May 18 at 3 a.m. Sutherland careened his SUV into a tree with 49ers rookies Josh Shaw and Kevin Curtis in the car.
Sutherland and Curtis fled, leaving the 290-pound Shaw behind. Sutherland was later apprehended when Los Gatos residents reported a prowler. Sheriff's deputies found him hiding in a bush.
Within a month, Sutherland was in an alcohol rehabilitation center.
"It was tough," Sutherland said of rubbing elbows with poor souls who were going through delirium tremors and cold sweats. "I wasn't alcohol dependent."
Nevertheless, Sutherland will not dispute that he needed to be there. "I wasn't happy about it, but I earned it," he said.
The experience put him on a routine of clean living, which included an improved diet and regular sleep. He eagerly reported to training camp and immediately tweaked his hamstring. It didn't recover in time for the season and Sutherland was paid an injury settlement and released.
Sutherland returned to his Florida home, got healthy, and latched on with the Bears for five weeks and was even activated for a game.
But the Bears eventually released him . "It was a numbers thing," Sutherland said. "They had so many injuries, when I got there they were building new parking spaces for players."
Last Sunday, in his first game back with the 49ers, Sutherland contributed a fair catch in the playoff win over the Giants. He was hit after signaling, which drew a 15-yard penalty and contributed to the team's comeback.
Comebacks apparently are part of Sutherland's environment. After the phone call from the 49ers, the Boilermakers turned things around, storming back and to defeat Washington 34-24 -- a fitting metaphor for what Sutherland was about to experience.
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