The quote holds, three years later, as the NFL addresses the paradox that has been shadowing its popular and lucrative enterprise for either the past two days (since Sunday's collection of brutal hits), the past two years or -- let's be honest -- much longer than that. Big hits are ingrained into the culture and the selling of football, yet we are learning that big hits are slowly killing the players.
On Sunday, there was New England's
And just to be precise, the rule in question is Rule 12, Section 2, Article 8. A portion of that rule reads as follows:
In the spring of 2007, I set out to explore the phenomenon of the Big Hit in a what became
Two interviews from the Big Hit story remain pertinent to the current debate.
"Once I see the receiver release, my eyes go to the quarterback,'' Russell said. "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 got 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.''
Also this from Russell: "I try to lead with a shoulder, 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.''
Lastly, this, on the general nature of the hitting: "Guys are in the weight room every day and doing spring training at the same time. They're doing everything they can to make the collisions more violent than they already are.''
As with any story in the magazine, I didn't print everything that Brian Russell said to me. I looked back through my notes and found this, as well: "The position I play, safety in a Cover Two set, they want me to make that hit. They want me to drive on the ball and create an incompletion.''
Once again, those statements are three years old, but little has changed. Certainly the concepts have not changed. That's a relatively schematic view. For a more philosophical view of the big hit, here is
"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,'' said 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.''
Let's be clear on something. Neither Russell (a solid player for a few years in the league) nor Lewis (a likely Hall of Fame linebacker) were talking about purposely concussive head shots, but rather about violent hits in general. Yet as Russell points out, it's pretty clear that the type of head shots the league is looking to penalize (and ultimately eliminate) are frequently just the by-product of speed, power and violence of the game and not directly intentional.
I won't sit here, safe at my laptop, and expound on the mentality of violence in professional football. I know only what players tell me. Big hits are an integral part of the game, from both a strategic and emotional standpoint. A hit like Russell's on Ochocinco (or Meriweather's on Heap) is intended not just to break up a pass, but also to discourage a player from running freely into the same area of the field another time, and maybe to shorten his arms on third-and-long.
And big hits entertain. The gasp that emanates from a full stadium when a player is laid out is a fundamental part of football entertainment. Not saying that's a good thing, but it's real, and to deny it is nonsense.
(Maybe I'm alone on this one, but over the course of the current NFL season, I've seen more receivers turtling up over the middle than ever before; that is, making a catch and getting onto the ground, yards-after-catch be damned.)
I also know what I've seen (and heard) at field level during games or practices. The televised NFL game is a sensational piece of entertainment, but it's a deeply sanitized version of what actually takes place. The hitting is positively fearsome.
In my experience, every American male who put on a helmet for his high school when he was 16 years old -- I was one of them -- thinks he understands the level of hitting in professional football. He doesn't. Not even close. But he can comfortably and safely act like it from his couch on Sunday afternoons, and argue that NFL players are richly compensated for the risks in catching passes over the middle.
Concussion research in the past several years has made it obvious the NFL needs to reduce the incidence of head injuries in its game. Strict enforcement of rules in place today is a step in that direction. The NFL is acting to preserve the health of its most important asset: the players. There's no amount of money that can suitably compensate a young former athlete for the loss of cognitive function.
Intimidating hits go back to