Tuesday July 24th, 2007

BIG HIT 1 Jan. 13, New Orleans Reggie Bush had never been drilled like this in his life. In high school and college he had always been the best athlete on the field, too fast and too elusive to leave himself open to a clean shot. But here, in an NFC divisional playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles, his initiation came suddenly. A swing pass floated into the right flat, a flash of green helmet and white jersey, and now Bush was on his hands and knees on the turf of the Louisiana Superdome, crawling in his black New Orleans Saints uniform like a small child, sent back to his infancy after getting blown up by Eagles cornerback Sheldon Brown. The play resonated throughout the league: Watching it on TV a thousand miles away in Chicago, Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher rose in appreciation. "Those are the ones you dream about," he'd say later. The New Orleans crowd, frenzied only seconds before, fell silent.

One day earlier Saints coach Sean Payton had given quarterback Drew Brees the game plan. The first 20 plays were scripted, the second being 52 Z Shark F Wheel. The snap count was "second sound," indicating that Brees would step up under center, shout "set-hut," and the play would begin. "I saw that hit on Reggie coming the night we got the game plan," says Brees. "Anytime you go on second sound, you're trying to keep the defense off-balance, but the risk is, you're not getting a great look at the defense. And the Eagles have a pretty nice little blitz package."

The Saints lined up with three wide receivers and Bush as the single back behind Brees. Brown set up as the outside corner, across from wideout Terrance Copper and five yards off the line of scrimmage to Brees's right. The quarterback's first read on the play was outside linebacker Dhani Jones, who was on the same side of the field as Brown and Copper. If Jones blitzed, he'd be unblocked and Brees would go to his hot read: Bush on a flare route to the right. Copper was running straight down the field, theoretically taking Brown with him. Theoretically.

"We had been working on that play all week," says Brown. "We even watched film the morning of the game. The first time we played them, they killed us with the flare route. They want to run me off and get Reggie matched up one-on-one with a linebacker. So we put in a play where, if the receiver releases, I just sit and then fly up and hit Reggie on the flare." (The Eagles' safety would pick up Copper.)

Jones blitzed, untouched. Brees lofted the ball over Jones's head toward Bush. But Brown didn't backpedal. He read the pass and drove toward Bush, running 11 yards at full speed. Bush reached for the ball and held it for .14 of a second -- a time gleaned from a frame-by-frame study at NFL Films -- before Brown launched himself into the air, driving his right shoulder into Bush's chest and stomach, arms extended. The impact lifted Bush into the air and carried him backward three yards, the two players' bodies floating together until Bush's back slammed into the artificial turf as the ball bounced away.

Bush rose quickly to his hands and knees, then to one knee and then to a standing position. And then back down to all fours, pawing at the ground. "I popped right up," says Bush, smiling at the memory. "Then I was like, Ooooo, I can't breathe, my wind is gone. I better get back down. I never felt anything like that before." Bush sat out one play before returning to the game.

"He was lucky," Brown says. "His elbow was pinned against his body, protecting his rib cage, or else I probably would have broken his rib. What did it feel like? That collision, I didn't feel nothing, because he was pretty much defenseless. It was like running through a cardboard box. Seriously. Cardboard box."

THE CULTURE OF THE HIT

Everything in football begins with the big hit and flows from there, like blood pumping from a beating heart, feeding limbs and organs. Someday business schools will teach courses on the runaway success of the NFL in the latter part of the 20th century and into the 21st. They will explain how the modern professional game was shrewdly built from humble roots into a 365-day-a-year machine through groundbreaking television contracts, relentless marketing, clever scheduling that promotes parity, Lord only knows how much money wagered on Sunday afternoons (not to mention on Thursday-, Saturday- and Monday-night games) and the cross-cultural phenomenon of the Super Bowl. They will probably ignore the visceral truth at the center of the issue: "It's people thinking they're watching a bunch of barbarians beating on each other," says Jeremy Shockey, the New York Giants tight end. It is bloodlust, built into the fabric of a sport.

And big hits are big business. They not only fuel the core audience but also spawn cottage industries such as ESPN's Monday-night "Jacked Up" segment highlighting the weekend's five biggest legal, noninjury hits, and EA Sports's fabulously popular Madden NFL video games, in which crushing hits are enabled by movements on the controllers. Big hits thrive in an outsized, cartoon world, where every play offers a chance to see Wile E. Coyote smashed by a falling boulder. The entertainment value is off the charts. Blowups are swiftly posted on YouTube (and just as swiftly yanked when the NFL's copyright police intervene). "People want to see violence," says Brown, "and every collision in the NFL is violent." Football without concussive hits is Ultimate Frisbee.

Yet there is a yawning disconnect at work. Television and video do little justice to the epic force at work when two NFL bodies collide. "Fans? They don't have a clue," says All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis, who over his 11-year career has probably initiated more seismic collisions than any other active player in the league. He is sitting on his corner stool in the Baltimore Ravens' practice-facility locker room, bent at the waist, talking in a stage whisper, tapping a visitor's knee for emphasis. "Most people sit back and look at it and think, They're animals," he says. "They look at us like we're animals for entertainment.

"They sit at home and watch and go, Ooooo, owwww, woooo. But then do they ask themselves, I wonder, does his head hurt now? How many hours did he sleep comfortably last night? Good hitters have been hitting for a long time. You can feel knots all over my head, and there's a place where my hair doesn't grow anymore. I've been hitting people so long, you just pray that nothing happens like with that boy in Cincinnati." (Linebacker David Pollack, the Bengals' first-round draft pick in 2005, fractured his neck making a tackle in the second game of last season; he is rehabbing and hopes to return to football.) "You pray for that not to happen," says Lewis. "To anybody."

Yet it does happen. The ramifications of NFL collisions have been thrust into the public consciousness in recent months, blurring the cartoon. Numerous stories have chronicled the fate of players diagnosed with serious brain damage from multiple concussions. Retired players are pressuring the league for better health benefits as they hobble around on knees and hips that no longer function. The battle has gotten the attention of players still in uniform. "It's a scary thing," says Shockey. "I've blacked out [in games] several times, especially my first couple years in the league. And then you look around and see former NFL players dying at an early age or just looking a lot older than they are. Scary, man."

It all starts with the hit. Thrills. Highlights. Video games. Concussions. "It's a violent game," says ESPN's Tom Jackson, a former All-Pro linebacker with the Denver Broncos and host of "Jacked Up". "It always will be."

BIG HIT 2 Feb. 10, Honolulu

Athletically speaking, Brian Moorman lies somewhere between the guy on the couch watching NFL Sunday Ticket and the freakish physical outliers who populate NFL rosters. He is 6 feet, 172 pounds, and one of the best punters in the league. He's also a former small-town, eight-man high school quarterback from Sedgwick, Kans., and a onetime Division II national champion in the 400-meter hurdles at Pittsburg (Kans.) State. Moorman, a six-year veteran of the Buffalo Bills, is neither slouch nor stud and thus perfectly suited to the task of evaluating the effect on an average person of a thunderous NFL hit like the one he received from Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor in February's Pro Bowl.

On fourth-and-seven from his 48, Moorman took a long snap and ran right on a called fake punt. As he neared the right sideline, AFC teammate John Lynch shoved NFC linebacker Derrick Brooks out-of-bounds, and Moorman made a halting cutback that brought him almost to a dead stop. "You cut back on football instinct," says Moorman. "It turned out to be not such a good idea."

The 6' 2", 232-pound Taylor had been sprinting upfield for more than 20 yards, and just as Moorman started running again, Taylor buried his right shoulder and right side of his helmet into Moorman's chest, instantly sending the punter's body parallel to the ground and three yards backward. "It happened so fast, and I never saw it coming," says Moorman. "It was totally shocking. Taylor is a really solid guy. I'm not solid, and I'm not used to taking hits like that. It was like hitting a brick wall, but the brick wall was running full speed at me."

Moorman leaped to his feet and ran off the field, but his right shoulder was sore for days afterward. There remains on his white Pro Bowl jersey a patch of yellow paint from Taylor's face mask. "It was a clean hit," says Moorman, "but I consider myself really lucky I didn't get hurt. And if I'd have gotten hit in the head? I'd still be lying there."

Taylor takes no credit. Running from the Redskins' practice field after a June workout, he declined to discuss the play -- or his reputation as one of the fiercest hitters in the league. "Nah, not me," said Taylor. "I'm no big hitter."

THE PHYSICS OF DOMINATION

Science can examine collisions and assign cold numbers to them. "Think of Jim Brown versus Dick Butkus," says Timothy Gay, professor of physics at Nebraska and author of Football Physics: The Science of the Game. "What is the force of that hit? Well, you're talking about classical physics, which puts us in the province of Isaac Newton: Force equals mass times acceleration. What you come up with in this case is that each man exerts about 1,500 pounds of force, or three quarters of a ton, on the other. Which is why they call football a contact sport."

Another physics professor, David Haase of North Carolina State, suggests an experiment that can be performed in any backyard. "Jump off a 13-foot ladder and land on your feet," says Haase. "You would be traveling approximately 8.81 meters per second, which is about 20 miles an hour. It would hurt, but bending your knees would absorb most of the energy, so it doesn't sound too bad. But football players do not collide feet first. Now imagine diving off a 13-foot ladder and landing on the ground head and shoulders first."

In reality, an NFL collision is far more complex on physical and psychological levels. Most pointedly, taking a big hit is painful. In a 2005 game against the Eagles, Redskins wideout Santana Moss caught a short pass on a crossing route, planted his foot and spun away from the defender. "The problem was, I didn't see the safety [Michael Lewis], and I spun right into him," says Moss. "He caught me straight in the back, full speed. All the energy just went out of my body. I felt it for the rest of the season."

Then there is the defensive player's perspective. "It's the most perfect feeling in the world to know that you've hit a guy just right, that you've maximized the physical pain he can feel," says Giants All-Pro defensive end Michael Strahan. "It feels like every muscle in your body is working in unison, and all your energy goes into his body. You feel the life just go out of him. You've taken all of this man's energy and just dominated him."

The big hit lives on long after the bodies have been cleared. In the culture of the game, a heavy blow does double duty: first on the body and then on the mind. It introduces fear and trepidation, factors that can last a play, a series, a game or a lifetime. "When you get that type of hit on a player, trust me, the game is not the same after that -- and the player is not the same, either," says Lewis. "That player is going to ask himself, Will I pay the price? Do I really want to get hit that hard again? And that's what the game is about. The long runs, the touchdowns and all that, that's the glamour. But the game is about taking a man down, physically and mentally."

BIG HIT 3 Nov. 26, Baltimore

Bart Scott, inside linebacker for the Ravens, can scarcely contain himself. He takes a writer's notebook, turns it sideways and begins diagramming a play. In the second quarter of what would be a season-defining 27-0 Ravens win, Scott took down Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with a blitz shot that Roethlisberger called the hardest he'd ever taken. Like Brown's hit on Bush, Scott's tackle was the product of execution (his) and failure (the Steelers').

"They were in shotgun," says Scott, scribbling characters on the paper. "In shotgun the center makes his [blocking-assignment] calls and then puts his head down before he snaps the ball. He's going to slide the line to the overloaded side. Now, a lot of what we do is window dressing; we give the offense one look and then change it up on them."

A review of the play on tape shows that as Steelers center Jeff Hartings takes one last look, Scott is to Hartings's left, in the middle of the defense. But when the center puts his head down, Scott runs to Hartings's right, all the way to the outside of the defensive front, on what is called a naked edge. "Now they're outflanked," says Scott. "And they're going to have to make some hard decisions about who to block."

At the snap Pittsburgh right tackle Max Starks steps back as if to block onrushing Baltimore linebacker Adalius Thomas. Instead, Thomas drops into zone coverage, leaving Starks unoccupied while Scott begins his blitz sprint. It's too late for Starks to slide out and block Scott, who has a free run at Roethlisberger. Best of all for Baltimore, Roethlisberger is looking left and doesn't see Scott. "I've got a free shot with 15 yards of steam, and he doesn't know I'm coming," says Scott. "Once in a lifetime."

Scott chops his steps briefly when Roethlisberger raises the ball as if to throw, but after Big Ben pulls the ball back down, Scott lowers his helmet and plows his face mask and right shoulder into the quarterback at the Steelers' six-yard line. Roethlisberger's head folds forward over Scott's shoulder and then snaps back. Scott drives through the hit with his feet churning, sending Big Ben onto his back, his legs flopping inertly.

"He was weightless, like I hit him in outer space," says Scott. "I heard him make this ungh sound, like air rushing out. I jumped up and did my bird dance, then looked back and saw Ben was still down, and I'm like, Yeah, I knocked him out of the game. But you hope he's not seriously hurt. Look, Ben is a big guy. That's what made it better for me. I laid a man out, a man who outweighs me. And he will never forget it."

Roethlisberger, who sat out for two plays before returning for the next series, declined to be interviewed at length about the shot but said through a Steelers' spokesman, "It was a great hit."

BLACKOUT

In professional football -- in all football -- machismo readily trumps common sense. A player rendered senseless by a crushing hit thinks two things: Get up, and don't show weakness. Much blame has been directed by the media and by damaged former players at coaches for pressuring athletes to play while injured, specifically after suffering concussions. While the criticism is fair, players often refuse to acknowledge their own compromised condition.

"Everybody blacks out," says Eagles cornerback Lito Sheppard. "Anybody who is playing football at this level and says he has never played blacked out is lying. You get hit, and you're out on your feet. But as a man, you get up because you don't want your homeboys seeing you down on the ground, crawling around. You have to show no fear, no damage. By the next play, you start to come back around. Not to say that you have all your senses, but you stay out there."

On a play several years ago Strahan came clean across the line of scrimmage, turned to rush the quarterback and was hit in the temple area of his helmet by 6' 3", 221-pound Redskins wideout Michael Westbrook. The force knocked Strahan, 6' 5" and 255, straight to the ground, where he landed on the other side of his head. "I was out of it," says Strahan. "But Westbrook is standing over me, shouting, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah,' and pointing at me. So I bounced up like nothing was wrong. I came out of the huddle for the next play, and I'm thinking, Just don't run the play this way, because I haven't recovered yet. I don't think I can handle that yet."

Likewise, Shockey says he has played significant portions of games in a cloud, induced not only by head blows but also by sheer exhaustion. "Early in my career we played a game against Dallas, and I still can't remember the last three series," he says. "I caught passes and made plays, and guys told me I was cussing up a storm in the huddle. I don't remember any of it."

There is more than bravery at work. Players are evaluated by their production, and no one produces while sitting on the bench with an ice bag on his neck. Many players applaud the league's increased vigilance in diagnosing and monitoring concussions. They want to be saved from themselves. "Most people know the smart thing is to come out, for one play or one series or whatever, after you get knocked woozy," says Cowboys defensive back Terence Newman. "Life is valuable. People have families and kids. Pride just isn't worth it."

BIG HIT 4 Nov. 19, Dallas

Newman stood at the Cowboys' 45-yard line, awaiting a punt from the Indianapolis Colts' Hunter Smith. The kick drifted to Newman's right, near the sideline. He shuffled toward the ball and stole a glance at Kelvin Hayden, the Colts' gunner, or outside tackler. "It looked like we got a pretty good jam on the gunner," says Newman. "So I made a decision not to call a fair catch." But in the time between Newman's glance and his catch, Hayden had worked himself free. "They had me in a double vice," says Hayden, "but I beat the vice."

At practically the same instant, Newman, the football and Hayden arrived at the Indianapolis 49. Hayden was running full out, and Newman was slowing as he moved up to make the catch, briefly cradling the ball with two hands, when Hayden lowered his helmet and crashed into Newman's chin. Newman was immediately thrown horizontal and landed square on his back.

"First thing I remember was thinking, What in the hell just happened?" says Newman, who sat out the next defensive series. "It was so fast. I took it on the chin, literally. I'm sure the only thing that saved me from a concussion was my mouth guard. Of course, as soon as I got up, I was p.o.'d because I knew I was going to be on "Jacked Up". Sure enough: Yours truly, Number 1."

JACKED UP

In April 2003 ESPN senior coordinating producer Mike Leber was on a flight from Houston to Hartford, silently brainstorming ways in which the network might spice up its Monday Night Countdown. Specifically, Leber sought to create personalized segments for studio experts Ron Jaworski, Michael Irvin and Tom Jackson. Writing on a pad of hotel stationery, Leber came up with a "Playmaker" segment for Irvin (trading on the former wideout's nickname) and "Sunday Drive" for Jaworski (exploiting the onetime quarterback's chalkboard skills). Neither would resonate like his pick for Jackson. Mixing the former linebacker's surname with a visceral description of the plays, Leber chose "Jacked Up". It has been one of the most popular -- and controversial -- segments in the history of the ubiquitous network.

It's a simple concept: Jackson and his coanchors select the five biggest hits of the weekend, minus any that resulted in injury or penalty. ("If a guy is injured, that's not going to be on 'Jacked Up'," says Jackson. "Now if a guy is dazed, that's another story.") The presentation is a rowdy reverse countdown. A hit is shown, and the anchors shout, in unison, "He got ... jacked up!" The phrase has found a place in the culture, to define any concussive act involving people or objects. Last winter, at a small-town high school hockey game in Connecticut, an open-ice body check was greeted with a "Jacked up!" chant from the student body.

Jackson hears it in airports, hotel lobbies, grocery stores. NFL team p.r. reps leave messages on his cellphone, nominating hitters for inclusion in the segments. And players love it. "We've had raw tape from NFL Films where you can hear a guy on the field tell another guy, 'Man, you just got jacked up,' " says Jackson. The segment is required viewing around the league; every player wants to be shown delivering -- and no one wants to be shown receiving.

Yet while Jackson calls his involvement in the segment "rewarding" -- and, according to an ESPN spokesman, the league hasn't objected to it -- "Jacked Up" has also been roundly criticized by media watchdogs. "People say it encourages violence," says Jackson. "I don't think it either promotes or detracts from violence. The collisions are very appealing to NFL fans. The players love to be on the segment, but I can guarantee you none of them are out there on the field, thinking about "Jacked Up" while they're playing. They have to make decisions too quickly."

BIG HIT 5 Sept. 17, Cincinnati

Cleveland Browns safety Brian Russell had to make just such a timely decision on the second weekend of last season. The Browns were trailing the Bengals 34-10 late in the fourth quarter when Cincinnati lined up in a four-wideout set on third-and-seven from its 48-yard line. Receiver Chad Johnson was split widest; across from him, Russell, a 6' 2", 207-pound hitting machine, was lined up 12 yards deep, on the hash mark.

At the snap Johnson shook free from bump-and-run corner Leigh Bodden and ran a tight slant. Quarterback Carson Palmer took a three-step drop and released the ball 1.9 seconds after the snap, but the pass was high and behind Johnson. Russell had read the play from the start. "They're way ahead [on the scoreboard], so they're probably not going to throw a deep ball," says Russell. "That means I'm not going to fly out of there in my backpedal. I'm sitting flat-footed and looking to drive forward on the ball. Chad Johnson was real wide, so I'm thinking slant.

"Once I see the receiver release, my eyes go to the quarterback.At that point you get a fraction of a second to decide if you're going for the ball or going for the hit. You go on instinct. I didn't think I could get there for the interception, so the decision is made. I'll go for the hit. You run downhill to the man, and if you get there a little early, they throw the flag. If you try to stop and wait, to time it perfectly all the time, you'll never make any plays. This is the game we play. I have to be physical. You have to pull the trigger and make a play."

Bodden jumped the cut and intercepted the ball in front of Johnson, who was reaching back, fully extended and wide open for Russell's blow. Russell went airborne and connected with Johnson in the upper chest and chin. Johnson's helmet flew off his head, and his body went limp and fell sideways to the ground. He lay there for 46 seconds before rising and walking slowly off the field.

Johnson, who declined to talk with SI about the hit, stood bleeding on the sideline while the game clock expired. In the postgame locker room he was glassy-eyed. When reporters asked Johnson about the play and he was unable to recall it, Bengals' p.r. director Jack Brennan cut short the interview session. Johnson received stitches in his chin and suffered a concussion, but he played the following weekend in a win over Pittsburgh.

As a safety who frequently plays in the Cover Two defense, Russell is at the epicenter of the NFL's big-hit conundrum. His essential job in that popular scheme is to break on wideouts and deliver monster shots. Yet the league is trying to crack down on helmet hits and other dangerous plays.

"I try to lead with a shoulder," says Russell, who became a free agent after the season and signed with the Seattle Seahawks, "but in the middle of a play there's no time to stop and wonder if you're doing it right. And while you're hitting with your shoulder pads, you can't put your helmet in your pocket. It's right there."

PADS? WHO NEEDS PADS?

NFL players are stunningly unprotected. Rules require only that they wear a helmet and shoulder pads. Many players wear no more protection than that. "Big old pads?" says the Ravens' Lewis. "The game is too fast for that." (Contrast this with college football: The NCAA requires that every player wear not only the helmet and shoulder pads but also soft knee pads, thigh pads, hip pads and a tailbone protector.)

Redskins tackle Jon Jansen, an eight-year veteran, wears minimum body armor. "Nobody wears pads anymore," he says. "I try to find the smallest possible pair of legal shoulder pads." Offensive linemen are so huge and their pads so tiny, it's often hard to tell during practice whether they're wearing any pads at all.

Quarterbacks are a notable exception, because they are especially vulnerable and in many cases irreplaceable. Their protection extends to flak jackets and hip pads. But the Saints' Bush, a running back subjected to repeated shots, wears only a helmet, shoulder pads with extensions to protect his chest and back, and thin knee pads, augmented occasionally by a paper-thin thigh pad if he's nursing a bruise. "Maybe I'll wear more when I get older," says Bush. "Right now, it's all about speed."

Not just speed. "Let's be honest," says Strahan, who also wears the minimum. "A lot of it is vanity. Hip pads, butt pads, elbow pads; they make you look frumpy. They take away your aerodynamic line."

Then there is Shockey, who often fights for extra yardage while taking blows from every defender who can reach him before the whistle. "I wear every piece of padding I can find," he says. "Why wouldn't I?"

BIG HIT 6 Dec. 17, East Rutherford, N.J.

Indeed, why wouldn't he, in light of hits like this one? Late in a 36-22 loss to the Eagles, Shockey escaped a chuck and ran his route straight up the left hash marks, shadowed by All-Pro safety Brian Dawkins. It appeared Shockey had created a small window of daylight for quarterback Eli Manning, but in the best of circumstances the seam route to the tight end is a difficult throw.

Strong safety Quintin Mikell was sitting deep on the same hash, reading Manning. "I could see he was going to try to thread the ball in there," says Mikell, "but I thought Dawk had enough coverage that Eli was going to have to float it."

Manning didn't float it, but he threw short and to Shockey's back shoulder, forcing Shockey to brake, turn back toward the quarterback and reach out with both arms. In this awkward position, Shockey was able to juggle the ball only briefly before losing it. Just as the ball fell away, Mikell unloaded on Shockey's back and right shoulder. "I weigh 200 pounds, and Shockey weighs 250," says Mikell. "In that situation I just launched with everything I had. I wasn't thinking about interference or anything else. I just know if he catches that ball, I'm in trouble."

Shockey expected the blow. He always does. "When I go down the middle and the ball is in the air, I'm going to take a big shot every time," he says. "A really good shot, you're going to be halfway knocked out, can't breathe, seeing stars. But it's coming either way, so I might as well do my best to catch the damn ball."

The impact of Mikell's hit drove Shockey into Dawkins. Shockey popped up -- "That one was good, but it didn't affect me in a big way," he says -- but Dawkins stayed down for half a minute, more dazed than either Mikell or Shockey.

HIT STICK, TRUCK STICK

The most effective instrument of mayhem in football is not the helmet, not the shoulder pad, not the forearm. It is the handheld controller that connects EA Sports's Madden NFL video game to its various platforms -- PlayStation, Xbox and Wii. Since its debut in 1989, Madden has sold more than 60 million copies, generating sales volume in excess of $2 billion. In 2006 Madden NFL 07 was the top-selling video game in North America, selling more than six million units. The name Madden is arguably more closely associated with the video game than with John Madden's work as a television analyst or his Hall of Fame coaching career.

From its primitive beginning Madden has evolved to the point at which an NFL video game being played on a plasma screen is at a glance barely distinguishable from an actual NFL game being broadcast on the same screen. Yet in practice the game is fantasy, its action exaggerated most of all in the intensity of its hits.

"The interesting thing about big hits in our game is that it parallels the real NFL game," says David Ortiz, 33, EA's lead producer for the Madden franchise. "You don't necessarily show up at an NFL game looking for a big hit, but when you see one, it takes your experience to a new level. We've tried to make an NFL simulation, but we also want you to have fun."

In 2004, with the launch of Madden NFL 05, EA added a feature called the Hit Stick for defensive players, which allows gamers to attempt spectacular, crushing hits by using a particular movement on the controller. The following year the Truck Stick, for offensive players, was added. The templates for the most spectacular blows are formed in a two-tiered process: first, with motion-capture football played by athletes on artificial turf in a warehouse in Vancouver; and second, by melding the real-life hits with software called endorphin to enhance and synthesize the hits. The latter process takes place in EA's Orlando office, where Ortiz supervises a staff of about 140 on Madden. "The system takes hits to a new level," says Ortiz. "On the turf, with motion capture, you can only go so far with real players before you put people in jeopardy. But the software allows us to create even more exaggerated hits. This year we have some ridiculous hits, like helicopter spins."

The NFL is a business partner with EA on the Madden franchise and retains creative control over the final product. According to an EA source, the NFL is wary of Madden's accentuating violence but in the end has signed off on all editions of the game in circulation. "If it looks silly," says Ortiz, "we don't use it."

For those hits, EA sells NFL Street, a wild hybrid of Madden set in a stylized urban street. It bears little resemblance to pro football, and the big hits are off the charts. While it is no Madden, NFL Street has sold a healthy three million units in three years of production.

BIG HIT 7 Dec. 3, New Orleans

There are times when neither player feels like a winner after a collision. The San Francisco 49ers were driving at the Saints' 14-yard line, when tailback Frank Gore ran a swing route to the right side. Saints corner Jason Craft, who lined up close to the line of scrimmage, immediately read the play and ran at Gore. "My first thought was, I'm going to go ahead and pick it off," says Craft. "That's a risk, and you've got to be sure. I decided to go ahead and just make the hit."

Quarterback Alex Smith's pass was deflected by defensive end Charles Grant. Gore, reacting to the tip, reached back and opened his torso to Craft, who drilled Gore in the chest with his left shoulder. Gore's head snapped against Craft's left biceps, and then he flipped over the side of Craft's body. "He got me in the air," says Gore. "I'm not going to lie to you, man -- it hurt. I did a little flip, and it knocked the wind out of me."

Craft jumped to his feet and celebrated briefly before pausing. "I was hurting too," he says. "Something in my stomach. I don't even know how it happened. I tried not to show it, because you've got to have that kill reaction. [Gore] kept talking to me the rest of the game. He was saying, 'You're not getting me again.' And I was like, 'Hey, I'm just playing -- you're talking about it.'"

Says Gore, "You know, you think about it. You get hit by any grown man, it's natural to think about protecting yourself."

NO WAY OUT

In June the NFL convened a one-day symposium during which medical experts (some of whom work for the league), current and former players, commissioner Roger Goodell and others addressed the effects of football-related concussions. The NFL formed the Committee on Mild Traumatic Brain Injury in 1994, and that group's work -- including recommendations to strictly enforce the ban on helmet-to-helmet contact and levy steep fines for dangerous play -- has made the game safer.

Beginning this season the league will require that all players undergo baseline neuropsychological testing during training camp, and then any player suffering a head injury will be tested against those baseline measurements. Team doctors will be more vigilant in their sideline assessment of players who have received head blows before allowing them to return to the field. In addition Goodell has promised to put in place a whistle-blower system to expose any team personnel who force players to perform against their will. "I honestly think the league is trying to protect its performers," says the Eagles' Brown. "That's in the league's best interest, and it's in our best interest too."

Yet the NFL and its players would appear to be trapped in an endless loop, with a problem that is resolvable only to a point. Russell, the Seahawks' strong safety, lifts weights and trains 12 months a year. During the season he gets massages on Tuesday and Friday to ready his battered body for Sunday's crashes. "Guys are in the weight room every day and doing sprint training at the same time," says Russell. "They're doing everything they can to make the collisions more violent than they already are. As a defender, you're trying to be as strong and as fast as possible, so you can hit a guy as hard as you can. Because he's trying to beat you, and then you lose your job."

On the one side, you have doctors and officials trying to protect players. On the other side, you have players trying to take an intensely violent and physical game to higher levels of violence and physicality. Wedged in the middle is the billion-dollar relationship between the NFL and the fans who drive its popularity and crave the very acts that make the game so dangerous.

On a sweltering June afternoon the Eagles' Sheppard sat in front of his locker after a minicamp practice, slowly getting dressed. He is 5' 10" and weighs 194 pounds, with a body consciously built for destruction and survival. He was taught to play football a long time ago, and now, at 26, it is too late to change. "I don't want to hurt anybody seriously, and I don't want to get hurt seriously," says Sheppard. "What we've got to do is find a way to play this game without killing each other."

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.