Cecil, who became a free agent after last season and signed a $5.25 million, three-year contract with the Cardinals in April, described that incident in Green Bay as a "misunderstanding." His concern now is that football may be taken away from him. "Football has always been the foundation of my life," he said in Phoenix. "It's me. It's what I understand. Now officials are after me, teams may not want me, I may not have a job. I need football. Football gives my life meaning. I don't feel like I'm contributing to the planet unless I'm playing it."
Two days later, in a 26-20 loss to the Detroit Lions, Cecil seemed reserved, subdued. When he broke up a long pass to wideout Willie Green in the second quarter, he didn't detonate. After the game he and Green talked, as friends. "You know I could have knocked you out," Cecil said. "But it's not worth it."
In the locker room Green voiced his compassion for Cecil. "Fining him is like putting a guy in jail for stealing a Snickers bar," he said.
Lion linebacker Chris Spielman was more outraged. "Fining Chuck was terrible," he said angrily. "We all know the risk of this game. Hell, I lived it with my buddy Mike Utley. That's the way it is."
Back in Phoenix, alone in the darkened team auditorium, Cecil is watching a film of his hit on Middleton again and again. He sees himself make a break on the receiver before the ball has even been thrown. It is a move only a brilliant defender could make. It guarantees a critical third-down pass will not be caught. "It's very pure," he says quietly. "I'm not afraid to hurt myself. That's a great hit."
But is it great football? There is a deep scar across the crown of Cecil's helmet that looks like it was made with an axe. He says he has no idea how it got there. No doubt it is from a big collision, one of those meetings that Cecil says happen "much too fast to rationalize." He doesn't think the game should be slowed down on screens and analyzed, the way the league big shots are doing, just as he doesn't think he should be labeled a dirty player. He says there's nothing personal about any of this violence. "I don't see players," he says. "I see situations."
But the damage is real, involving real people. One of Cecil's big hits two years ago was laid on the skull of former Jet wideout Al Toon. The blow gave Toon a concussion. Toon is now retired, the victim of cumulative head trauma, some of it courtesy of the Heat Seeking Missile. Toon doesn't blame Cecil for the blow, though he does feel all contact in pro football should be made below the neck. "Chuck is only going to hurt himself," he says. "He's going to break his own neck."
Cecil brushes such warnings aside, focusing instead on the rapture of a devastating hit. "It's unbelievable," he says. "An orgasm. Euphoria. I don't know if you can put it into words. There is just this feeling of...power. For that split second of time you own that person. You are better. For just one moment, you know where you stand."
Perhaps no longer.