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THOMAS' SPINE DAMAGE NOT AS BAD AS FIRST FEARED

Derrick Thomas underwent more than four hours of surgery Tuesday to rebuild part of his spine and doctors said his spinal cord was not damaged as badly as feared.

Thomas' spinal cord was severely bruised, neurosurgeon Barth Green said.

Doctors originally thought it might have been severed when Thomas, 33, was thrown from his car Sunday after losing control on an icy highway near Kansas City, Mo. Thomas broke his spine and neck and wound up semiconscious with no feeling in his legs.

Though Thomas remained paralyzed from the chest down, doctors expressed hope he'd walk again.

"There have been cases of people with similar injuries who have recovered and there have been people who haven't recovered," Green said. "Anybody who knows Derrick knows that you don't bet against him. But it's too early to tell right now."

The Kansas City Chiefs linebacker's operation included decompressing the spinal cord, stabilizing the spinal column with screws, titanium rods and hooks, and implanting bone grafts from Thomas' hip.

Doctors said surgery went as planned. He already has begun working with therapists.

Judge denies Belichick request

NEWARK, N.J. -- Bill Belichick remained a coach without a team as a federal judge denied his request for an order allowing him to seek another NFL coaching job.

In a sternly worded ruling, U.S. District Court Judge John W. Bissell said Belichick created the very problems he asked the court to solve for him when he resigned as coach of the New York Jets one day after being appointed to succeed Bill Parcells.

His lawyers claimed the NFL is preventing Belichick from making a living the only way he knows, and Bissell acknowledged Belichick's distress at not having a team to coach.

"But who does he have to blame for that?" Bissell asked. "He had a head coaching position with the New York Jets, highly compensated, with the prestige, the title, the exposure, the market and the team that certainly should have provided to him adequate rewards.

"It was he who turned his back on that," Bissell said in denying Belichick's request for a temporary restraining order that would have enabled him to seek coaching opportunities with other NFL teams, notably the New England Patriots. "In large measure, he put himself in this position."

Belichick, angry with NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue's ruling last week that he cannot coach another team this year without the Jets' permission, sued the league on Monday.

Bucs decline option on Dilfer

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers showed how happy they are with the job rookie Shaun King did this season.

The Bucs declined to exercise a $4.6 million option on Trent Dilfer's contract, allowing the 27-year-old quarterback to become an unrestricted free agent.

Dilfer started 76 games over six seasons with the Bucs.

"Given the situation that exists here in Tampa, I agree with the Bucs that it is best for everyone that I be permitted to move on to another team," Dilfer said.

King went 4-1 as a replacement for Dilfer and won a playoff game.

Around the league

According to a survey published Tuesday in the Los Angeles Times, injuries were down in the NFL in 1999. A total of 364 NFL players missed 1,061 games because of injuries this season, down from 398 players sidelined for 1,340 games. Two seasons ago, 335 players missed 937 games.

The biggest television audience in 10 months -- since the Academy Awards -- watched St. Louis' 11-6 victory over Tampa Bay in the NFC Championship Game. Sunday's game got a 26.9 rating and 47 share on Fox, Nielsen Media Research said. That was up 5 percent from last year's NFC Championship, when Atlanta's 30-27 overtime victory over Minnesota got a 25.7 rating and 54 share on Fox. Fox estimated 66 million people watched all or part of Sunday's game, the highest rated TV program since last March 21, when the Academy Awards got a 28. 6/4 6.

The Minnesota Vikings added three of Green Bay's fired assistants to their coaching staff, including defensive coordinator Emmitt Thomas, a day after Sherman Lewis was brought in to run the offense. Former Packers receivers coach Charlie Baggett also joined Green's staff and Thomas brought along Chuck Knox Jr., who will provide computer analysis.

Bill Musgrave was hired as the Carolina Panthers' offensive coordinator.

Indianapolis rookie Steve Muhammad won't face charges in connection with his wife's death. Nichole Muhammad bled to death Nov. 7 after injuries from a car accident forced her into premature labor. He was arrested on battery charges 10 days earlier because of a confrontation with his wife.

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