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Tennessee Titans running back Eddie George had a strained abdominal muscle last year that was so painful he couldn't practice the last nine weeks of the season.

He still finished the season with 1,294 rushing yards.

"Those were the toughest games I've had to fight through in my career," George said. "My abdomen was just tight the whole year. I had to get shots every week just to play on Sunday. But I made it out there. It would be tough for me to miss a game."

George, in fact, never has missed a game in his four-year NFL career, or in college or high school, either.

That kind of toughness epitomizes George and defines the Tennessee Titans' offense.

George is the blue-collar, go-to guy in the Titans' no-frills offensive attack. How successfully George can pound away at the St. Louis Rams today will go a long way to determining the outcome of Super Bowl XXXIV.

George has methodically established himself as one of the NFL's elite runners since being drafted out of Ohio State in 1996.

He gained 1,304 yards this season to become one of only five backs to gain at least 1,200 yards each of their first four years. The others are Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson, Ottis Anderson and Earl Campbell.

But as George reflected on his career this week, he stressed that his success, and the toughness for which he is now known, were far from a foregone conclusion.

He says he was a slacker his first two years at a suburban Philadelphia high school until -his mother decided to take a drastic step to teach him some discipline. She shipped him off to Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy.

"It was very crucial for me to leave and go to Fork Union, because I was headed on a path to nowhere," George said. "I had no ambitions of doing anything other than skipping school and playing street football."

George was raised by his mother after his parents separated in 1980. Donna George worked two and sometimes three jobs to support Eddie and his sister, Leslie. She was a production manager at an automobile plant by day and did some fashion modeling at night. She also picked up work as a banquet caterer.

During the summer before George's junior year in high school, he asked to borrow $55 from his mom to take a summer-school course to improve his math skills.

Donna George eventually learned that he needed the course because he was failing and was trying to stay eligible for football.

"She was pretty mad about that," George said. "I tried to cover up something, and it came back to kick me in the behind. It was a tough financial strain for her to send me to Fork Union, but she did it."

George said he cried on the way to Fork Union, and when he got there he was given a football jersey without a number. The Fork Union coach told him he could get a real jersey when his academics were in order.

"It took me five or six months to adjust there," George said. "I tried to fight it. But I found myself just marching more tours and doing extra duties. If you were disobedient, they'd make you turn around, face a wall and salute it for as long as they wanted you to stand there."

George got his act together and won a scholarship to Ohio State. He left the Buckeyes as their second leading career rusher, won the Heisman Trophy in 1995 and earned a degree in landscape architecture.

Despite the Heisman, there were some doubts about George entering the '96 draft. Some wondered if he ran a little too high. Never mind the fact he has a huge body for a runner -- 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds -- and can run 4.42 in the 40-yard dash.

"Sometimes people talk themselves out of a good football player," Titans General Manager Floyd Reese said.

The Rams took Lawrence Phillips sixth overall in the draft. Carolina took Tim Biakabutuka eighth. George slipped to 14th.

Dickerson probably is the Hall of Fame back most similar to George. But George might be a little tougher.

His teammates call him the Beast because of his size and intensity.

He had to check himself into a hospital in June due to dizziness and cramping after a hard workout in hot weather. He was given intravenous fluid and released.

"Eddie's one of those guys who's got fire in him," Titans linebacker Barron Wortham said. "When he's in front of you on the field, you can feel it."

George has the speed to get outside and break long runs, but also has a knack for falling forward. He always seems to get one more yard as he's going down.

"I'm not a Jerome Bettis-type of runner," George said. "I'm a power back, but I'm quick enough and strong enough to miss hits, too. My style is not getting a lot of punishment."

"Eddie brings us a little something," Reese said. "In his mind, he can go out and gain 200 yards every week if you give him the ball. He brings us that . . . toughness."

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