Chuck Cecil's world is exploding. The Phoenix Cardinal free safety has closed on his target like an electron returning to a nucleus, and now he uncoils into Washington Redskin tight end Ron Middleton with a crash that is both terrifying and thrilling to behold. Middleton crumples around Cecil like a crash-test dummy around a telephone pole. His feet buckle and his helmet flies. The headgear will come to rest five yards from the site of impact, and when Middleton revives sufficiently to know where he is—RFK Stadium on Sept. 12—he will notice that all four snaps on his helmet chin strap are still in place; Cecil's blow knocked the helmet off the way carbonation blows a champagne cork out of a bottle.
But just now Middleton is on another planet. Flat on his back, knees up, eyes closed, he looks as though he has been nailed to the ground. Cecil stands over him, twitching with ecstasy. Later, sports-writers will say Cecil appeared to be imitating a boxing referee, counting Middleton out. Cecil doesn't think that's what he was doing, though he admits he doesn't remember much of what happened in the euphoric state he had entered. He does recall kicking Middleton's helmet when he saw it lying in front of him.
For the six-foot, 185-pound Heat Seeking Missile, as Cecil was dubbed during his All-America career at the University of Arizona, the blow approached perfection. For the NFL brass reviewing the collision on slow-motion replay later that week, the hit, and another on the same series, approached insanity. On Sept. 20, Bill Polian, the NFL's vice-president for football development, announced that Cecil was being fined $30,000, one of the largest nonsuspension fines ever imposed on a player, for "two acts of flagrant unnecessary roughness involving the use of his helmet." He is appealing the fine, but he has reportedly been warned that another such hit will result in suspension.
Polian's statement read, "Cecil speared running back Ricky Ervins and tight end Ron Middleton of the Redskins. On each play, Cecil used the top of his helmet to strike intended receivers in the upper body." No matter that the two plays occurred during a crucial fourth-quarter Washington drive in a game that Phoenix would win 17-10, for its first victory at RFK in 15 years. No matter that no penalty flags were thrown on either play. No matter that Ervins bounced up after his hit or that Middleton outweighs Cecil by 75 pounds. The league had spoken: Spearing is illegal: Cecil was a menace to others and to himself. Striking with the crown of the helmet is prohibited, noted Polian, because of the danger it poses to the players involved, "including the one doing the hitting." Told that Cecil didn't think he had used the crown of his helmet for impact, Polian said, "Well, he's totally wrong then." And the fine was the stiffest ever, he said, "in light of Cecil's prior conduct outside the playing rules."
Almost two weeks later Cecil is sitting at a table in Rick's Cafe in Tempe, not far from the Cardinals' training camp. He orders biscuits and craw, ham on the side—"Get the cholesterol level up," he says with a crooked grin—a meal that might stick to his skinny, unmuscled bones. As a high school freshman Cecil weighed less than 90 pounds; as a walk-on at Arizona he weighed 148. "Don't ever let a recruiter see you without a shirt on," Rey Hernandez, his defensive coach at Helix High in La Mesa, Calif., had told him. As it happened, UCLA recruiter Homer Smith did catch a glimspe of the bare-chested Cecil, and that was the end of his interest.
"Why me?" Cecil says now in his quiet, almost docile way. "They single me out for something being done leaguewide on a regular basis. They're saying what I do is dirty and cheap, but I've played this way forever. I signed a million-dollar contract because of it. People cheer when I make a big hit. I mean, that's what I do."
Support for Cecil has come from many sources, including some who were at the game. After watching Middleton's helmet roll to a stop, CBS commentator Randy Cross said, "This, I gotta tell you, is how a safety gets to the Pro Bowl." After the game Redskin coach Richie Petitbon said, "That's football, man. This game is not played in short pants." Said Dallas Cowboy coach Jimmy Johnson, "That's the kind of football I like to see."
Even Middleton doesn't think the hit on him was against the rules. "It was just great lick," he says. "That's the nature of the game. Guys dream of licks like that."
Maybe so. But Middleton's tongue was numb for several minutes after the blow, and when Cecil had hit Ervins moments earlier, it was Cecil who had fallen to the turf in agony, a nerve stinger shooting down his left arm. These days, in fact, he moves his neck with difficulty, even off the field. Cecil says that his head was up on both hits, that he was tackling with his face mask and the front area of his helmet, nose on numbers, trying to drive his body through his opponent, the way coaches, fans and teammates like it. If he doesn't tackle like that, he says, he has little to offer on the playing field.
"He's totally wrong," Polian says of Cecil's insistence that the hits were legal. "His head was down. The sole issue is where his head is at contact. What we say is, 'See what you hit.' " Polian knows about improper head placement on tackles; as a safety for New York University in the mid-'60s, he twice knocked himself out by hitting with the crown of his helmet. Watching Cecil's tackles in slow motion, Polian was overwhelmed by visions of Darryl Stingley, Mike Utley and Dennis Byrd, all victims of spinalcord injuries. If not reined in, Polian concluded, Chuck Cecil would paralyze someone—an opponent or himself. "Are we saving him from himself?" Polian asks. "Perhaps."