Andrew Steele plays big for Tide

February, 9, 2012
Andrew Steele ran into Festus Ezeli's chest while trying to get around a screen. The blow caught him off guard. It wasn't directly to the head, but it stunned him. "I was scared, and it dazed me for a while,'' said Steele, a 6-foot-4 junior. "And I thought, am I going through this all over again?''

Steele played only three minutes against Vanderbilt on Jan. 19.

It was only his fifth game back for Alabama. Hiis career was pronounced over last June due to concussion symptoms. But through further examinations and testing and an increase in Vitamin D supplements, he was cleared to give up his role as manager/scout team assistant and contribute to the Tide's hopes of making the NCAA tournament for the first time under coach Anthony Grant.

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Andrew Steele, Mfon Udofia
AP Photo/John BazemoreAndrew Steele is hoping he can bring more awareness to athletes who suffer concussions.

"It scared all of us,'' Grant said of Steele running into Ezeli, which caused him to sit for the rest of the game. "One of my coaches saw him running into Ezeli. With the history he has, it shook him up a bit and it concerned us. We were grateful that it wasn't another concussion. But we were nervous.''

Steele said he hadn't been eating well that week and was sick. He said he was dehydrated, and that contributed to his unstable feeling.

In the five games since, Steele has played at least 25 minutes in each contest. He continues to be a key reason the Tide have a chance to make the NCAA tournament -- especially in light of the recent suspension of Tony Mitchell.

Steele played his most important game for the Tide against Ole Miss last week. He picked up a loose ball, buried a jumper and then made 1 of 2 free throws in the final 31 seconds to beat the rival Rebels. "That speaks to everything,'' Grant said. "The defense was collapsing, and he had the presence of mind in the heat of the moment to get a shot off. That's a veteran move. A young guy may have rushed it. He recognized what he had to do.''

It would have been a disastrous defeat for Alabama as it attempts to improve its tourney résumé. Bama (16-7, 5-4 SEC) then won handily at Auburn on Tuesday.

Steele's numbers aren't going to get him on an All-America list (5.8 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 2.4 apg). This isn't about stats. This is about his importance to the team and his timely play.

And the fact that he's even on the floor at all.

"He's been great for us,'' Grant said. "You don't necessarily see it in the numbers. But watch us play and see his leadership qualities on the court. He's got an extremely high basketball IQ. He plays with great poise and great confidence. He communicates with everyone on the floor and does whatever the team needs.''

Steele has suffered four concussions in his career. He said the worst came during his freshman season against Texas A&M, forcing him to miss a week.

The last one -- against Kentucky in the SEC tournament on March 12, 2011 -- forced him to temporarily retire from the game.

Steele had had other health issues, including dealing with a sickle cell trait, a stress fracture and soreness in his knees. He played in only six games in 2009-10, and missed 13 in 2010-11. He's played in a total of 54 games in three seasons (2008-11).

"I thought I would just get into coaching,'' Steele said. "I was physically active and I was practicing with the scout team and every once in a while I would jump in and help them out.''

Steele said he listened to the medical staff advice to avoid contact. "As much as I wanted to play, it wouldn't be smart for my long-term health at the time so we made the right decision,'' Steele said.

Steele said the medical staff continued to evaluate him and realized that his Vitamin D count was low. He continued to get tested. Steele said the memory tests were a way to calculate his brain functions.

"They would list a series of numbers and tell me to recite them back in that order,'' Steele said. "Then I would do them backward and put them in numerical order. I had a list of words, and an hour later had to remember those words. We would do shapes and see how well I could function with those. It was painstaking, but I understood the importance.''

Grant said the medical staff cleared him for his return.

"The results came down and the decision with Andrew and his family was to play,'' Grant said. "He wanted to rejoin the team. We were told there was no health risk. Andrew has shown no signs of being hesitant or leery.''

Steele said he's hoping he can bring more awareness to athletes who suffer concussions. Concussion symptoms are a hot topic in sports like football and hockey, but it should also be taken as seriously in basketball or any other sport.

"It's dangerous, and you have to make a good decision,'' Steele said. "The biggest thing is the headaches. You have to be honest. It's not like you broke a bone or something. You have to be honest with your symptoms. The long-term effects aren't worth the risks.''

Steele said he had headaches, was sensitive to bright light and "really loud noises."

"You can tell that your body isn't normal,'' Steele said. "Sometimes I couldn't sleep well.''

But Steele said since he's been cleared, and of course following the Vandy game last month, he has had no concerns.

Now the focus is on getting to the NCAA tournament.

"I wasn't able to be a part of the NIT run last year,'' Steele said. "It could be a whole new experience to get in the tournament. We can't look too far ahead.''

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer



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