Deon Figures's answer is as chilling as the story about his off-season gunshot wound. Do you have any idea, the third-year Pittsburgh Steeler cornerback is asked, why someone you don't know would take aim at you with a handgun and shoot?
"Because," Figures says slowly, "that's the life in L.A."
Figures was driving from South Central Los Angeles to his home in west L.A. in a rented green Mustang at three in the morning on May 12. Driving down Broadway, a four-lane road, with the car stereo blaring music, Figures caught a glimpse of a man dressed in dark clothing standing on the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street. "He got into the position, with his hands in front of him and kind of crouching, like he might be pointing at me," Figures remembers. "But in that neighborhood, you don't assume anyone's pointing. You assume that they've got a gun. I had no time to think. I ducked. I didn't hear anything, because I had the music on loud, and as I was driving away, I didn't think that anything had happened.
"Maybe 10 or 15 seconds passed, and still I didn't think anything had happened. Then I felt something trickling down my leg, like sweat or something. I reached down to feel it and pulled my hand up, and it was blood. I said, 'Damn! He shot me!" '
Figures still swears that he never felt the bullet enter the side of his left knee.
"What's strange," he says, "is I've had friends who've been shot—violence is so common where I come from—who tell me they never felt a thing. I used to say to them, 'Come on. How do you not feel a gunshot?' But they're right. If I hadn't felt blood running down my leg, I wouldn't have known maybe until I got home or until I tried to walk when I got out of the car."
Figures drove himself to Kaiser Permanente Hospital in west L.A. It was there that an emergency-room doctor gave him a local anesthetic and pulled the bullet out—intact—with a forceps. But the slug had already done plenty of damage. A week after the shooting Figures had bone chips removed from the knee and surgery to repair a tear in the tendon associated with holding the kneecap in place. "They told me that 25 percent of the tendon was blown away and 50 percent damaged," says Figures. "They repaired the tendon using the 50 percent that was left."
Figures has made a quicker-than-expected comeback from the shooting. The Steelers thought that he might be unable to play again until at least mid-season, but he began running hills with trainers at the Steeler training camp in Latrobe, Pa., two weeks ago, and he hopes to take back his starting spot in Pittsburgh's secondary by the team's Sept. 3 opener against the Detroit Lions or shortly thereafter.
At least one of his teammates thinks that the shooting might prove beneficial for Figures. "It might be a crude thing to say, but if there's anything positive to come out of this, it's that Deon is working harder to get ready for the season than he has in the past," says Pittsburgh cornerback Rod Woodson.
Figures does say that the incident has made him appreciate how precious life is. But he also says that he refuses to run away from his roots—he grew up only seven miles from the scene of the shooting—or be fearful when he moves back to Los Angeles after the football season. And he isn't going to try to figure out why it happened. "I'm driving a dark-green car, which means nothing to gangs," he says. "Red's for Bloods, blue's for Crips. The way I see it, it was just somebody taking target practice. Happens all the time in L.A."