Even quarterbacks are getting in on it. I watched Dan Fouts get flagged for unnecessary roughness—for spearing an opponent, for burying his helmet into a downed, helpless player. I don't think I ever cheap-shot anybody when I played, though there were times, I know, when things got murky. If players begin to embrace those moments of murkiness, to revel in them, isn't there something wrong with them?
I came in from a run and sat down to watch the Lions play the Vikings on TV. Ahmad Rashad was running a crossing pattern. The moment the ball arrived, Detroit Cornerback James Hunter hit Rashad in the back, helmet first, brutally but legally, the way defensive backs are taught. Rashad, who suffered a broken bone (a transverse process) in his back, had to be carried off the field. A few series later, Hunter hit Minnesota Receiver Sam McCullum on a sideline pattern. The tackle was the same—head-first and reckless—but this time it was Hunter who did not get up. A stretcher was brought out, and doctors cautiously slid it under Hunter. His helmet was left on his head and taped securely to the stretcher. Four days later I read that the Lions' doctors had told Hunter to retire or risk permanent spinal damage. Rashad, though less seriously injured, had already decided to call it quits.
We eat breakfast at 5:30 and then climb onto a school bus for the ride to the Arizona Heart Institute, where we'll take our physicals. Training camp has begun. No matter that this is a Sunday; we're on Allen Time. There aren't any Blitz veterans here, nobody to make somebody else stand up and sing his school's fight song. Cliques haven't formed; nobody knows anybody.
I sit down in the dark next to a small, bearded black man. The only sounds on the bus come from the seat in front of us. A player wearing earphones is bouncing, snapping his fingers, singing high, happy disco. A ball of wadded newspaper hits him in the head, but he keeps on. That must be a wide receiver, I think. Later, I found out it was Marcus Anderson, a receiver who'd been with the Chicago Bears in 1981.
The player beside me sighs. He's looking at the landscape beneath purple desert sky. "This I know," he says. "I should not be a farmer." Several miles go by. "I'm Rolland Lawrence," he says, extending his hand. "Nice to meet you."
Lawrence played eight years of cornerback for the Atlanta Falcons. He's 31 years old, trying to make a comeback from a torn hamstring that kept him on injured reserve for the entire 1981 season. Like most everyone else here, except the rookies, Lawrence is damaged goods, a football suspect. I am reminded for a moment of Australia, which was settled by British convicts and outcasts. This could be a bus to Australia, I think, plowing into a dark and barren new land.
"I never stretched much," Lawrence says after a while. "One night I was playing Ping-Pong with my girl friend's father, and I could feel the muscle ready to go. It went during practice. Up high, near my butt. What position do you play?"
"Safety, maybe some punting," I say. "I don't know how I'll do. I just wanted to try again."
The bus swerves around a bend. Lawrence nods in understanding. "Hey," he says, "you'll never know unless you shake the stick."
Cornerback Dennis Bishop, a rookie from Illinois, sits across the aisle. He got two interceptions in the recent Liberty Bowl game and feels good about that. Sturdy, somber and a little bit cocky, he seems to have the proper personality for a defensive back. I notice his Liberty Bowl watch, a stylish thing with no numbers on its face. "I bet it's hard to tell time with that," I say.