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The Big Hit
TIM LAYDEN
July 30, 2007
Players live for it, fans love it, media celebrate it--and all bemoan its devastating consequences. The brutal collision of bodies is football's lifeblood, and the NFL's biggest concern
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July 30, 2007

The Big Hit

Players live for it, fans love it, media celebrate it--and all bemoan its devastating consequences. The brutal collision of bodies is football's lifeblood, and the NFL's biggest concern

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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 Frisbee.

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

Athletically 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 DivisionĀ 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.

On 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 idea."

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."

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