I have a friend who, when late for crosstown appointments, simply jumps behind the wheel of his car and announces to any passengers that the traffic laws have been temporarily suspended. He then goes tearing down back alleys, across parking lots and occasionally even up onto sidewalks to get where he's going on time. A rather astonishing result is that people who have been waiting patiently in traffic actually move aside to let my friend go by.
Sports, it appears, has become like my friend's driving—few of the standards of civilization seem to apply, and in the case of the NFL, they evidently have been revoked altogether. I was reminded of this two Sundays ago when New York Jet running back Freeman McNeil committed a flagrant act of compassion, all but taking himself out of a game against the Indianapolis Colts because he was so overcome with remorse after accidentally shredding the left knee of Colt linebacker O'Brien Alston. For indulging in this alarmingly human response, McNeil was bullyragged, first by his coach and then by himself. "I lost my focus as a football player," he said after the game. "I let the team down."
The injury occurred when McNeil, who was blocking for Roger Vick on a running play early in the second quarter, hit Alston low and hard just as Alston's cleats caught in the artificial turf. Alston's knee gave way with a sickening crack. Alston was carried from the field, his season clearly over. McNeil was so shaken by the play that for 10 minutes he knelt quietly on the sideline, his helmet on, rarely looking up from the ground as his teammates filed by to try to console him.
McNeil remained in a fog until halftime, twice missing blocking assignments and once lining up incorrectly on a critical third-down play at the Colts' five-yard line. In the second half he carried the ball only twice, for eight yards. McNeil remained so distraught after the Jets' 17-10 defeat that when he caught up to Alston, who was on crutches outside the Colts' locker room, he apologized with tears in his eyes. Alston told him he had nothing to be sorry for. "These things happen," he said.
October 15, 1989
"He was shook up the rest of the game," said Jet coach Joe Walton, who was evidently flabbergasted by McNeil's reaction. "I've never seen anything like it. I understand his feeling, but that's the way the game goes. Obviously, it [allowing his remorse to affect his play] was not a good thing...and he realizes that."
Not a good thing? When was the last time you heard an NFL coach criticize one of his players for being a cheap-shot artist—or a wife-beater, for that matter—by saying it was "not a good thing"? Or when was the last time an NFL coach came out foursquare against artificial turf, which almost certainly had more to do with Alston's injury than McNeil did?
Wasn't it "not a good thing" 11 years ago when Darryl Stingley became a quadriplegic following a frightening hit by Jack Tatum? Or when Joe Theismann's leg snapped beneath a Lawrence Taylor sack—after which, Taylor, an embodiment of the game's fearsomeness, was, like McNeil, clearly shaken?
When was the last time an NFL coach publicly rebuked one of his players for using steroids (two of Walton's Jets have been detected doing just that this season) by saying it was "not a good thing"?
Temper tantrums, violence and taunting are all tolerated—even encouraged—in football because they represent the insistent twitching of an exposed nerve, the dark nimbus of aggression. Most players carefully avoid any display of sensitivity, fearing that someday they could be called to account for it. Are you now, or have you ever been, capable of a warm, fuzzy emotion?
McNeil had never intended to let his sensitivity get so far out in front of that of the rest of the league, so it was no surprise when he suddenly tried to drop back among the crowd. His expression of concern for Alston quickly turned into a source of embarrassment to him, so, on a day off for the players, he showed up at the Jets' practice facility to deliver a personal apology to Walton. Walton had by then described the game against Indianapolis as one of the greatest disappointments of his career, a loss he blamed on a lack of intensity and on the inability of certain unnamed players to focus. Walton also reminded McNeil, a veteran of eight seasons, of his responsibilities to the team to be a leader.
"Everything happens for a reason," McNeil said after their meeting. "The reason this happened was to teach me about being a leader. I let down. I could have stayed focused, and we could have won the game. I have to still be able to go out and be a leader, no matter how bad I feel."
For a while there, it looked as if McNeil might be a leader because of how bad he felt. Instead, all the normal rules remain temporarily suspended. Play ball.