Allen half smiles. "I project him as a linebacker," he says. "The kind of linebacker who, if you don't give him too many responsibilities and don't make him think too much, but just turn him loose, will disengage the runner from the ball."
It was after, or maybe during, the one-day mini-camp in November at Blitz Park in Des Plaines, Ill. that I first started to feel afraid. My hamstring hadn't quite healed, and I could only perform some of the drills. But I felt I was doing all right, not embarrassing myself. I couldn't run the 40 because of the pull, but my 27-inch vertical leap put me near the middle of the pack. My three consecutive hops totaled 27 feet—not terrific, but I hadn't cheated like a lot of the others.
During the coverage drills, as I stood in line waiting to go against a receiver, I heard noises on another field. The offensive and defensive linemen were over there, going one-on-one against each other, the offensive player protecting a stand-up dummy, the defensive man trying to reach it. It was a normal, if rough, full-contact drill, but they were doing it without pads. The sounds were of bodies slamming together and wild cheering. After a few minutes an ambulance drove slowly down the perimeter road, through the parking lot and onto the field. It picked up a lineman from the drill and left.
A friend of mine named Kerry Reardon called me a few days later. Kerry and I had gone to Kansas City together as defensive backs. He'd made it and played six years for the Chiefs. He wasn't big, just fast. I asked him how badly he thought I could get hurt.
"Bad," he said. "Pretty bad."
"A lack of talent, and age. Just that hamstring you were mentioning. I pulled mine and it will bother me the rest of my life. I did it on Monday night TV, covering Golden Richards. I was just running across the field when a shotgun blast hit me in the back of the leg. I played another year, but I could never reach down again."
Reardon had been a reserve with the Chiefs until Cornerback Jim Marsalis hurt a kidney during a game. Standing next to Marsalis in the bathroom at half-time, Reardon saw Marsalis passing blood. Reardon immediately began loosening up, knowing his chance had arrived. Near the end of his career Reardon was kneed in the side during a game. He went to the locker room and stood at a urinal and passed a thimbleful of urine that was black as coal. "I couldn't go another drop." he said. He spent the next 10 days in a hospital, nauseated, literally wanting to die.
And yet, "I never worried about getting hurt," Reardon said to me on the phone that day. "Never." And neither, until now, had I.
As I ran my leg back to health, I found I was having doubts. The NFL strike was over and the games were back on TV, and their images were haunting me. It wasn't the violence as much as the way it was dispensed, the way it was accepted—even by its victims. Punt Returner Leon Bright of the Giants, after being nearly decapitated by a vicious cheap shot from the Lions' Leonard Thompson, says he doesn't mind, that "it's part of football." Dolphin Safety Lyle Blackwood, a born-again Christian, says that he and his brother, Glenn, the other Dolphin safety, "never hit people to hurt them. We just like to make people hurt." Does football promote such garbled logic? Only in this game is the head—the center of reasoning—covered with crash-resistant plastic and used as a weapon. Do the pads and armor (and the rules) give a football player too" much freedom—the freedom to commit unreasonable violence?