If only middle linebacker Mike Singletary's broken helmets could talk. We could gather up a couple from Worthing High in Houston, get the 16 from Baylor University and throw in a few more from the Chicago Bears and listen to them wail and holler about the big bang that accompanied their destruction.
Do you know what it takes to break a football helmet? Have you ever tried to shatter the hull of a motorboat? With your skull? With someone else's?
"He rotated helmets in practice so he could have spares that were broken in and that conformed to his head," says Baylor sports information director Maxey Parrish. "Then during games we'd have three or four of them sitting in a row by our bench. Mike wouldn't even know it when he broke a helmet. Guys in the huddle would say, 'It's cracked, go get another.' Sixteen in four years. We may get two or three a year now from the whole team."
Singletary is to intensity what Pee-wee Herman is to nerdity. His sleepy Samurai eyes widen to embrace contact. Against Georgia in 1978, his sophomore year at Baylor, Singletary knocked over two pulling linemen who were leading a sweep and then flattened the ballcarrier, knocking the man out of the game. It was an astonishing hit, made extraordinary by the fact that Singletary had lost his helmet in mid-play and had stopped the runner bareheaded.
"I try to visualize my head all the way through the man, my whole body through him," says the 6-foot, 228-pound Singletary, the UPI 1984 and 1985 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. "In high school my coach said, 'I'd rather have you hit with your shoulder, but if you want to hit with your head, do it right.' I wanted to hit with my head. It's technique. It's not safe or legal unless you do it just right. In fact, it's very dangerous. The worst thing you can do is to lower your head when you're making a tackle. The neck, I don't care how strong, can be injured. You must keep your face back, your head up. You can apply a lot of force that way."
In the NFC championship game against the Rams it took Singletary a while to realize that the screws he saw lying on the field came from his own helmet. He checked and found his face mask was ready to drop off.
A short time later his helmet felt loose. The chin strap had split in half. "I don't know how that happened," he says. After the game he got word from equipment man Ray Earley that the helmet itself was broken. Again, no idea how that had happened.
One thing he did know about was the hit he gave running back Eric Dickerson on a crucial third-and-one play in the first quarter. A hole opened off left tackle, and Dickerson slashed into it. Suddenly he was moving backward from a collision with Singletary, whose neck measures 20 inches and whose playing style, as Bears free safety Gary Fencik notes, "is almost crablike." Loss of a yard on the play. Punt. The Rams are finished for the day.
Dickerson, who went to SMU, played against Singletary in college. "He was scared to death of Mike," says Parrish, who was an assistant sports information director at SMU before going back to Baylor. "I think that hit brought back some bad memories for Eric," says Fencik. For Singletary, it was an instant of clarity and reward.
"I don't feel pain from a hit like that," he says. "What I feel is joy. Joy for the tackle. Joy for myself. Joy for the other man. You understand me; I understand you. It's football, it's middle-linebacking. It's just...good for everybody."