At first it looked like just another play: a snap to the quarterback, the crack of pads, a sideline pass completion followed by two players tumbling out-of-bounds and into the Green Bay Packers' bench. As Nancy Haskell watched the Jan. 14 NFC Championship Game against the Dallas Cowboys from her seat in the upper deck at Texas Stadium, neither she nor the other Green Bay coaches' wives gave much thought to the ensuing stoppage of the game. The first real hint that anything was amiss came when a fan sitting nearby lowered his binoculars and mentioned that a fallen man on the sideline was wearing tan slacks. Only then did a thought race through her mind: The Packers' coaches were wearing tan trousers, weren't they?
"When he said 'tan slacks,' that's when all of the coaches' wives put our binoculars up to our eyes too," Haskell says. "Then everyone started scanning the sidelines for her husband and saying his name out loud: 'I see Mike.... There goes Nolan.... I can see Steve.' They were all putting their binoculars back down, and I was looking and looking, but I couldn't find Gil."
Suddenly Haskell knew. She jumped up and grabbed the arm of a friend, and down the stadium ramps they ran.
On the field Packers wide receivers coach Gil Haskell lay surrounded by doctors and paramedics as head coach Mike Holmgren squeezed his close friend's hand. When quarterback Brett Favre rushed over, he was shaken to see that Haskell's eyes had rolled back in his head and that his tongue was lolling out. Haskell remained unresponsive for at least five agonizing minutes. At first the team doctors were calling out his vital signs to each other—"I've got a pulse.... I've got respiration"—and Holmgren found himself shouting, "We've got movement!" when Haskell's foot twitched for the first time and his hand squeezed Holmgren's.
As the delay dragged on, the thought of beating the Cowboys for a Super Bowl berth receded. Holmgren thought first about his 25 years of friendship with Haskell. Then: Where was Nancy? And: Were these doctors suppressing the same thought that was screaming through his mind? Was there a chance that the 52-year-old Haskell might die right there, near the 35-yard line?
The ambulance that had driven onto the field to collect Haskell was already in the stadium tunnel on its way to the hospital when Nancy arrived. She hopped in the front seat just seconds before the driver pulled away from the arena. Through the window in the back of the ambulance's cab, she got her first look at her stricken husband. Packers associate team physician John Gray was among the three medics attending the coach. Gray now says, "We were definitely concerned it could have been a lethal injury."
During her sprint to the tunnel, Nancy had missed seeing her husband being fitted with a cervical collar. Nor had she heard the gasp from the crowd when the replay was shown on the Texas Stadium scoreboard. What the crowd saw was Packers wideout Robert Brooks catching a one-yard pass and Cowboys safety Darren Woodson quickly driving him out-of-bounds and into Haskell. His body was catapulted backward, and the back of his head slammed violently off the artificial turf as one of his sneakers flew off. Then he was still.
The first sketchy report from Baylor University Medical Center listed Haskell in critical condition with a skull fracture in the back of his head and a bruise on the front of his brain. But the Packers didn't even know that much until after they had lost the game 38-27 and boarded their charter for home. The score had been 17-17 with 5:11 to play in the first half when Haskell was hurt. Favre remembers studying Holmgren before play resumed. "If he lost it, the rest of the guys on the sideline were going to lose it," Favre says. "And he did not lose it. He was concerned, but he handled it very well."
Holmgren soldiered on—through the end of the game, and the somber flight home, and most of Green Bay's breakup meeting the next day—until he asked defensive end Reggie White, an ordained minister, to lead a team prayer for Haskell. As White spoke and the Packers stood hand in hand, the logjam of emotions finally broke. "Tears welled up in my eyes," Holmgren says, "and probably half the players' eyes too."
Everyone, it seemed, had his own affecting memory. For days Favre couldn't shake that image of Haskell's tongue lolling out. Numerous Packers mentioned the force of the hit, their dread fear of paralysis. Gray recalled his first game on an NFL sideline. "People warned me, 'You won't believe the hitting,' " Gray says, "but nothing really prepares you for it. The level of violence, the speed of collisions that routinely go on—it's unbelievable. TV mutes it. Under the artificial turf there's some padding. But then it's just concrete."