We have seen horrific crashes claim lives in auto racing. We have seen brutal beatings claim lives in boxing. We have seen terrible accidents claim lives in action sports.
One day, we might see a violent collision that claims a life in the NFL.
But if we’re lucky, we’ll just see players who “only” are left paralyzed.
Death and maiming are distinct possibilities in some sports, including football. For several minutes during Sunday’s Cowboys-Seahawks game, we wondered if we witnessed a fatality – all the while praying it was just an injury.
Seattle wideout Ricardo Lockette dropped to the ground like a rag doll and was motionless after Dallas safety Jeff Heath delivered a devastating block during a kickoff return. We would’ve felt so much better if Lockette rolled around in pain or arose and staggered toward the sideline.
Or moved, period.
Instead, he lay lifeless while a bevy of medical staffers attended to him for what seemed like forever. Through the crowd of folks kneeling over him, we focused on his arms and legs, looking for the slightest flex or twitch. We wanted a sign that he was alive and his body still worked (in that order).
Lockette finally obliged, opening his eyes and speaking. He raised his fists while being carted off the field, pointing to fans as they applauded. Taken to a local hospital, he displayed full movement in all extremities.
“I know a lot of guys were really hurting for him, because we didn’t know what was going on,” Seattle wideout Doug Baldwin told reporters after the game. “But we’re thankful he’s OK.”
“OK” is relative. Lockette suffered a sore neck and concussion that could lead to who-knows-what. But that’s better than the fears that invaded our head while he was down and out (unconscious) after the hit.
Thankfully, we were spared another outcome like Darryl Stingley in 1978, the most infamous case of a player permanently paralyzed during an NFL game. Others such as Dennis Byrd (1992) and Kevin Everett (2007) suffered paralysis and regained some of their mobility. Mike Utley, injured in 1991, is the last NFL player who left a game and never stood on his own again.
In 2009, then-Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer told Sports Illustrated “The truth of the matter is … somebody is going to die here in the NFL. It’s going to happen.”
It has happened once in the NFL, when Detroit Lions wideout Chuck Hughes suffered a heart attack on the field in 1971.
Hughes’ death was unrelated to football; one of his arteries was 75 percent blocked and heart disease ran in his family. Two players in the old AFL (New York Titans’ Howard Glenn in 1960 and Kansas City’s Stone Johnson in 1963) died shortly after suffering broken necks during games. In the Arena League in 2005, Los Angeles Avengers lineman Al Lucas was covering a kick when he died on the Staples Center turf. The cause of death was “blunt force trauma to the spinal cord.”
The pros have been unscathed by death for the most part.
The preps have been less fortunate.
Andre Smith, a 17-year-old senior at Chicago’s Bogan High School, died two weeks ago after suffering “blunt force head injuries due to a football accident,” according to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office. The Illinois High School Association said Smith was the seventh high school football to die this year nationwide.
There are more than 14,000 high school football teams, compared to 32 in the NFL. Seven deaths in a single season would threaten the league’s existence. But seven deaths among 1 million teenagers don’t make a ripple statistically. Neither do 11 deaths – last year’s toll at the high school level.
We’re accustomed to the NFL carnage we witnessed Sunday, the grotesque and unnatural bending of limbs – such Pittsburgh halfback Le’Veon Bell’s right knee – that make us wince and turn away from replays. Players around the league seemed to go down every 10 minutes, though it didn’t make the action less enjoyable.
Take the Giants-Saint game. That shootout featured 861 passing yards, 101 points, 13 touchdown passes … and New Orleans halfback Khiry Robinson being carted off with an ugly injury to his lower right leg.
Hey, better a mangled knee than a scrambled brain, right?
Bears chairman George McCaskey and couple of NFL health officials visited Chicago newspaper editorial boards recently, touting rule changes to reduce injuries and policies to make youth football less risky. The league proudly pointed out that concussions during regular season games have gone down by 35 percent in three years.
In other words, there’s roughly one concussion every two games. At least no one has died or been paralyzed lately. Lockette gave us a scare.
That remains the great fear on any given Sunday.