And big hits are
big business. They not only fuel the core audience but also spawn cottage
industries such as ESPN's Monday-night "Jacked Up" segment highlighting
the weekend's five biggest legal, noninjury hits, and EA Sports's fabulously
popular Madden NFL video games, in which crushing hits are enabled by movements
on the controllers. Big hits thrive in an outsized, cartoon world, where every
play offers a chance to see Wile E. Coyote smashed by a falling boulder. The
entertainment value is off the charts. Blowups are swiftly posted on YouTube
(and just as swiftly yanked when the NFL's copyright police intervene).
"People want to see violence," says Brown, "and every collision in
the NFL is violent." Football without concussive hits is Ultimate
Yet there is a
yawning disconnect at work. Television and video do little justice to the epic
force at work when two NFL bodies collide. "Fans? They don't have a
clue," says All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis, who over his 11-year career has
probably initiated more seismic collisions than any other active player in the
league. He is sitting on his corner stool in the Baltimore Ravens'
practice-facility locker room, bent at the waist, talking in a stage whisper,
tapping a visitor's knee for emphasis. "Most people sit back and look at it
and think, They're animals," he says. "They look at us like we're
animals for entertainment.
"They sit at
home and watch and go, Ooooo, owwww, woooo. But then do they ask themselves, I
wonder, does his head hurt now? How many hours did he sleep comfortably last
night? Good hitters have been hitting for a long time. You can feel knots all
over my head, and there's a place where my hair doesn't grow anymore. I've been
hitting people so long, you just pray that nothing happens like with that boy
in Cincinnati." (Linebacker David Pollack, the Bengals' first-round draft
pick in 2005, fractured his neck making a tackle in the second game of last
season; he is rehabbing and hopes to return to football.) "You pray for
that not to happen," says Lewis. "To anybody."
Yet it does
happen. The ramifications of NFL collisions have been thrust into the public
consciousness in recent months, blurring the cartoon. Numerous stories have
chronicled the fate of players diagnosed with serious brain damage from
multiple concussions. Retired players are pressuring the league for better
health benefits as they hobble around on knees and hips that no longer
function. The battle has gotten the attention of players still in uniform.
"It's a scary thing," says Shockey. "I've blacked out [in games]
several times, especially my first couple years in the league. And then you
look around and see former NFL players dying at an early age or just looking a
lot older than they are. Scary, man."
It all starts with
the hit. Thrills. Highlights. Video games. Concussions. "It's a violent
game," says ESPN's Tom Jackson, a former All-Pro linebacker with the Denver
Broncos and host of "Jacked Up". "It always will be."
Big Hit 2
Feb. 10, Honolulu
speaking, Brian Moorman lies somewhere between the guy on the couch watching
NFL Sunday Ticket and the freakish physical outliers who populate NFL rosters.
He is 6 feet, 172 pounds, and one of the best punters in the league. He's also
a former small-town, eight-man high school quarterback from Sedgwick, Kans.,
and a onetime Division II national champion in the 400-meter hurdles at
Pittsburg (Kans.) State. Moorman, a six-year veteran of the Buffalo Bills, is
neither slouch nor stud and thus perfectly suited to the task of evaluating the
effect on an average person of a thunderous NFL hit like the one he received
from Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor in February's Pro Bowl.
fourth-and-seven from his 48, Moorman took a long snap and ran right on a
called fake punt. As he neared the right sideline, AFC teammate John Lynch
shoved NFC linebacker Derrick Brooks out-of-bounds, and Moorman made a halting
cutback that brought him almost to a dead stop. "You cut back on football
instinct," says Moorman. "It turned out to be not such a good
The 6' 2",
232-pound Taylor had been sprinting upfield for more than 20 yards, and just as
Moorman started running again, Taylor buried his right shoulder and right side
of his helmet into Moorman's chest, instantly sending the punter's body
parallel to the ground and three yards backward. "It happened so fast, and
I never saw it coming," says Moorman. "It was totally shocking. Taylor
is a really solid guy. I'm not solid, and I'm not used to taking hits like
that. It was like hitting a brick wall, but the brick wall was running full
speed at me."
Moorman leaped to
his feet and ran off the field, but his right shoulder was sore for days
afterward. There remains on his white Pro Bowl jersey a patch of yellow paint
from Taylor's face mask. "It was a clean hit," says Moorman, "but I
consider myself really lucky I didn't get hurt. And if I'd have gotten hit in
the head? I'd still be lying there."