The kickoff that followed the Los Angeles Avengers' first touchdown in their Arena Football League game against the New York Dragons on Sunday appeared to be a routine play--one of the thousands of moments of controlled chaos that Al Lucas had been part of in his peripatetic football career. Lucas, a 6'1", 300-pound lineman, rumbled down the Staples Center field and zeroed in on Dragons kick returner Corey Johnson, who was closely shielded by a blocker, Mike Horacek. Lucas lowered his head, and as he crashed into the pair another Dragons player hurtled over his back. Replays appeared to show that Lucas's helmet collided with Johnson's or Horacek's knee. All three players crumpled to the turf.
One didn't get up. For 10 minutes, as players prayed and the din gave way to silence, paramedics attended to Lucas on the field before strapping him to a stretcher. He was taken to a hospital and within the hour he was pronounced dead of a presumed spinal cord injury. (An autopsy was to be performed early this week.) "It never entered my mind this was possible," said Avengers lineman Sean McNamara.
Lucas, 26, is the first player in the AFL's 19-year history to die in a game. (Detroit's Chuck Hughes, who suffered a heart attack in 1971, is believed to be the only NFL player to die during a game.) The shock of Lucas's death was compounded by the sheer ordinariness of the play that caused it--he wasn't hit awkwardly or with unusual force. Said coach Ed Hodgkiss, "I had every confidence that he was going to be O.K."
Lucas was one of the sport's journeymen: A former Buchanan Award winner, at Troy State, as the top Division I-AA defensive player, he spent the 2000 and '01 seasons with the Carolina Panthers, then was selected in the NFL Europe free agent draft. He chose instead to play for the AFL's Tampa Bay Storm in 2003.
For Lucas, who dreamed of returning to the NFL, the league became more than just a showcase. He developed into one of its most respected players, winning a championship with the Storm in 2003 and becoming a locker room leader for the Avengers, whom he joined before the '04 season. In the off-seasons he returned to Macon, Ga., where he lived with his wife, De'Shonda, and daughter, Mariah, and did some coaching and substitute teaching at Northeast High, his alma mater. "When he was laying on the ground," said Avengers fullback Lonnie Ford, "I was thinking that could be any one of us." --S.C.