The first time linebacker Allen Aldridge saw a replay last December of the collision that nearly killed Lions linebacker Reggie Brown in Detroit's regular-season finale, he paused in his living room in Denver and prayed for Brown, whom he had never met. The replay showed Brown attempting to tackle the Jets' Adrian Murrell when he collided with a New York lineman and jammed his neck. Brown had to be resuscitated on the field as shaken players and a national television audience looked on.
In February the Lions signed Aldridge, a free agent who played for the Broncos the last four years, to replace Brown. "You can still see the hurt in the guys' hearts around here," says Aldridge. "When you lose a player like that, someone who was a leader, it's going to affect the team for a long time. I told the guys right away, 'You can't ever replace Reggie, because there are no other players like him.' "
As a 6'1", 255-pound middle linebacker, Aldridge piled up 319 tackles in Denver but is probably most remembered for his interception in the end zone that helped the Broncos defeat the Steelers in the 1997 AFC Championship Game. Although Denver would have liked to keep him, he signed with the Lions for two reasons. First, he wanted to shift back to outside linebacker, a position he played in college, and second, the Lions lavished a four-year, $10 million deal on him.
As for Brown, he suffered a contusion of the cervical spine that day against the Jets and underwent surgery to stabilize his neck. According to doctors, one in five people who have such an injury the, yet three months after he was hurt, Brown was playing basketball. In April he walked into the Silverdome to watch the Lions' 1997 highlight film with his teammates. "That was an emotional time for us," says Detroit defensive coordinator Larry Peccatiello. "It helped that Reggie made such a great recovery. Once the guys saw him it was, like, O.K. let's put this behind us and get back to business."
Brown, the Lions' No. 1 draft pick in 1996, was a quick, strong, intuitive player who, in the age of the specialist, could rush the passer, stop the run and drop into coverage with equal effectiveness. Last season he was Detroit's second-leading tackier, with 157 His old teammates still talk about the bullet thrown by the Packers' Brett Favre in Week 5 that Brown plucked out of the air and ran back for a touchdown.
While Brown has almost completely recovered—he says he sometimes feels numbness in his extremities—he retired at 23 rather than risk a paralyzing injury and has re-enrolled at Texas A&M in hopes of completing his economics degree. "I try never to let myself feel down," he says. "I always try to remember how bad it could have been. I'm beating the odds. I could be in a wheelchair now."
"Reggie played every down as if he were shot out of a gun," says Detroit middle linebacker Stephen Boyd. "He saved my butt a bunch of times. The guy was huge and fast, but what I remember most was he was so smooth at everything. How do you replace a guy like that?"