Injuries have forced Louis Delmas
to miss 15 games over four years in the NFL. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- "If I get an opportunity to get an interception, I’ll get it," Louis Delmas said, his eyes drifting toward the Detroit Lions' practice field, as if errant footballs are hovering in the air there like coins in a video game, waiting for Delmas to roll through and snatch them.
"But I’ll pass up an interception for a big hit."
In terms of one-sentence scouting reports, Delmas' last line is positively Mayockian. If the Jaguars can list Denard Robinson as an "Offensive Weapon" on their roster, perhaps the Lions can alter Delmas' designation from safety to "Punisher" or something similar. He plays the game with the sort of reckless abandon possessed by some of the all-time greats at his position -- Troy Polamalu, Jack Tatum, John Lynch.
And the Lions love him for it. Tight end Tony Scheffler glowingly describes Delmas' game as "playing with his hair on fire." Jim Schwartz calls him the "spirit of our defense."
But though his spirit is willing, Delmas' flesh has too often been weak.
SNAPSHOTS: Key storylines, battles and rookies to watch during training camp
Delmas injured his MCL during the 2011 season, causing him to miss five games. He sat out another eight last season, as his knee continued to bother him despite surgery in training camp. As his teammates walk off the field on this day, a picturesque Saturday afternoon in Southeastern Michigan, Delmas heads over to the JUGS machine to catch some passes. That will stand as the lone activity he is allowed to do, padless and sporting a brace on his troublesome left knee.
The Lions entered camp hoping to ease Delmas along slowly, holding him out of action every other day. The plan has come unhinged slightly -- Saturday marks his third straight practice on the sidelines.
"[It's] mind-boggling, I'm used to being out there on the field," he said, while the rest of the Lions shed their equipment and swing over to sign autographs for the large crowd. "As long as I can keep playing this game, I will; if I can’t, I can’t."
Louis Delmas was hurt. He had to be.
Seconds earlier, before Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit followed the team's trainer onto the field to check on the team's star safety, Delmas had launched himself into 265-pound Illinois tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, igniting a vicious collision. Both players splattered to the turf. Delmas stayed down.
Cubit was familiar with this scene. For fours seasons in Kalamazoo, the coach had watched Delmas whip himself around the field, in search of anyone to hit.
"That’s the way he plays," said Cubit, now the head coach of the same Illinois team his Broncos upset back in 2008. "I had to shut him down in practice, just said, 'Lou, you’re not going to touch anybody in practice.' I was worried he was going to hurt somebody else."
During his sophomore season in 2006, Delmas found himself out of the lineup for two games after spraining his MCL while trying to help gang-tackle a Virginia running back. As two Western Michigan defenders brought the ball-carrier down, Delmas flew over top of the pile.
"I could’ve easily eased up, but I dived in there anyway," Delmas recalls. "I could have, it was out of bounds, I just wanted to get in on the contact. ... I love contact."
Delmas used that same approach every time the ball was in play, be it in practice or a game -- no matter how valiantly Cubit tried to insulate him.
"Coach Cubit used to take my helmet away from me," Delmas said. "Every time we had live periods, he’d take my helmet away from me, because I’d be trying to punish people as much as I can. I know I hit Greg Jennings [who played with Delmas at Western Michigan] one time, and they kicked me out of practice after that."
Adds Cubit: "He’s a guy who doesn’t know how to play any other way. If he plays with caution, he’s just not going to be as effective in his mind. That’s the way he always played, just like a QB ... it's like with Brett Favre -- he’ll throw a pick here and there, but that’s what makes him so good, he’s such a gunslinger."
As he later would with the Lions, Delmas claimed a starting spot very early in his Western Michigan career and never relinquished it. He started 11 games his freshman season and was a team captain as a junior and senior. Only that MCL injury, suffered against Virginia, knocked him out of action.
His hit on Hoomanawanui, now with the New England Patriots, threatened to do the same.
"It’s crazy because the thing about me, like, any person who’s receiving the ball, I don’t give a sh- ... I almost said a bad word ... I don’t look at the size or look at the opponent," Delmas said. "I just look at the ball. Any time the ball is in the air, I’m going to try my hardest to knock the opponent on the ground."
By the time Cubit reached him after his hit on Hoomanawanui, Delmas was prone on the turf at Ford Field -- ironically, his NFL home starting the next season -- with his helmet off, talking to the trainer. Delmas offered a wry smile when he saw Cubit, an indication that he somehow had avoided a serious injury this time.
"That was a pretty smart move," Cubit said sarcastically.
Delmas turned his head.
"Coach, I had him."
In preparation for the 2005 college football season, Tony Scheffler and a few of his upperclassmen teammates at Western Michigan got together for informal summer workouts. On one such day, incoming freshman Louis Delmas sauntered onto the field.
"Us vets were out just running routes, and him and E.J. Biggers [now a member of the Washington Redskins] come walking out in street clothes, talking smack," Scheffler said, glancing down the Lions' locker room at Delmas. "And they ended up lining up against us -- we're running routes on air, and it turned into 1-on-1 drills ...
"Friggin’ 18-year-old kids."
Delmas and Biggers became far less of an annoyance to Scheffler as the year progressed. That duo started a combined 20 games in 2005, their first at the college level, as Western Michigan finished 7-4. One year later, after Scheffler had jumped to the NFL, the Broncos broke a bowl drought that began in 1989.
Delmas was integral in the turnaround. He recorded more than 200 tackles in his college career, picked off 12 passes and earned a pair of All-Mac honors. And had he not been so important to the Broncos' defense, he might have carried that swagger to the other side of the ball.
"He could’ve been one of the better wideouts we had," Cubit contends. "We were so bad defensively, but I watched tape, and said, 'Shoot, that guy could start for us [at wide receiver] right now.'"
Delmas rejoins the Lions for Sunday's practice. During the session's first seven-on-seven drill, he drops back into a Cover-1 look, free to roam the field, as new Detroit safety Glover Quin drops down to tend to a slot receiver. Matthew Stafford zips a pass toward Patrick Edwards at the left hash, 20 or so yards downfield.
Delmas sees Edwards break toward the middle of the field, stops his backpedal, plants and drives on the football. He reaches it just a split second before Stafford's pass can get to Edwards, diving to swat the ball to the turf as the fans in attendance applaud.
One play in an early August practice. A perfect indication of what Delmas can do from the safety spot.
"We play better when he’s on the field," Schwartz said, matter of factly. "He's such a good vacuum cleaner -- we don’t have very many big plays when he’s out there, because he’s able to get guys on the ground. He can match up against tight ends, play in the box, play deep. He’s an outstanding football player. We’re better with him, for sure."
Detroit has some experienced backups at safety, in players like Don Carey and John Wendling. None provides the type of ferocious, game-altering dimensions that Delmas can, especially in concert with Quin, his projected starting partner in a revamped secondary.
The Lions re-signed Delmas this offseason to a two-year, nearly $8 million contract, despite previously adding Quin. They did so, too, despite the 15 games Delmas has missed in his four-year NFL career and his troublesome knee, which threatens to flare up at any moment.
"We are a different defense without him," linebacker Ashlee Palmer said. "He’s a big factor on the team. That guy, locker room gets down, next thing you know, he's picking us up."
Delmas' upbeat presence in the locker room and on the sidelines was one the Lions, often disheveled in recent seasons, also could not afford to lose. Despite a reputation for being occasionally contentious with the media, he carries no such stigma among his teammates and coaches. Cubit's quicker to recall Delmas's off-the-field highlights than any big hits, for example, and Delmas spends much of Saturday's practice seeking out other members of the secondary to talk through plays.
Delmas ended Saturday's activity by dancing around the clubhouse, drawing laughs from his tired teammates. He opens Sunday's practice in much the same way, strutting across the field while the team lines up for sprints.
"He's full of life, full of energy, great guy to have in the locker room," Scheffler said. "But at the same time, you have to respect his play."
"Anything I can do to play all 16 games, I'll do it," Delmas concedes. If that means sitting out the entire preseason slate or missing a few days of training camp, he reluctantly offers, so be it.
"We'll take it every day as it comes," Schwartz said, when asked if penciling in Delmas for a full season is even realistic at this point. "We’re going try very proactively to manage it through. We’re prepared with depth if he can’t, but he means an awful lot to our defense."
Trying to change Delmas' style of play is out of the question. His game is built on an artistic violence, an aggressiveness that would be impossible to harness. Instead, the Lions will nudge him along, gently and cautiously, attempting to get him across the tightrope from Week 1 to Week 17.
The balancing act puts a strain on Detroit's defense and, as evidenced by Delmas' inability to stand still on Saturday, can drive the fifth-year safety crazy.
"He just loves to play," Schwartz said. "That’s the biggest thing."
Delmas and the Lions are crossing their fingers that he gets the chance.