The Big Hit

Players live for it, fans love it, media celebrate it--and all bemoan its devastating consequences. The brutal collision of bodies is football's lifeblood, and the NFL's biggest concern
July 29, 2007

Big Hit 1

Jan. 13, NewOrleans

Reggie Bush had never been drilled like this in his life. In high school andcollege he had always been the best athlete on the field, too fast and tooelusive to leave himself open to a clean shot. But here, in an NFC divisionalplayoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles, his initiation came suddenly. Aswing pass floated into the right flat, a flash of green helmet and whitejersey, and now Bush was on his hands and knees on the turf of the LouisianaSuperdome, crawling in his black New Orleans Saints uniform like a small child,sent back to his infancy after getting blown up by Eagles cornerback SheldonBrown. The play resonated throughout the league: Watching it on TV a thousandmiles away in Chicago, Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher rose in appreciation."Those are the ones you dream about," he'd say later. The New Orleanscrowd, frenzied only seconds before, fell silent.

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

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

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

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

Bush rose quicklyto his hands and knees, then to one knee and then to a standing position. Andthen 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 thatbefore." Bush sat out one play before returning to the game.

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

THE CULTURE OF THEHIT

Everything infootball begins with the big hit and flows from there, like blood pumping froma beating heart, feeding limbs and organs. Someday business schools will teachcourses on the runaway success of the NFL in the latter part of the 20thcentury and into the 21st. They will explain how the modern professional gamewas shrewdly built from humble roots into a 365-day-a-year machine throughgroundbreaking television contracts, relentless marketing, clever schedulingthat promotes parity, Lord only knows how much money wagered on Sundayafternoons (not to mention on Thursday-, Saturday- and Monday-night games) andthe cross-cultural phenomenon of the Super Bowl. They will probably ignore thevisceral truth at the center of the issue: "It's people thinking they'rewatching 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 asport.

And big hits arebig business. They not only fuel the core audience but also spawn cottageindustries such as ESPN's Monday-night "Jacked Up" segment highlightingthe weekend's five biggest legal, noninjury hits, and EA Sports's fabulouslypopular Madden NFL video games, in which crushing hits are enabled by movementson the controllers. Big hits thrive in an outsized, cartoon world, where everyplay offers a chance to see Wile E. Coyote smashed by a falling boulder. Theentertainment 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 inthe NFL is violent." Football without concussive hits is UltimateFrisbee.

Yet there is ayawning disconnect at work. Television and video do little justice to the epicforce at work when two NFL bodies collide. "Fans? They don't have aclue," says All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis, who over his 11-year career hasprobably initiated more seismic collisions than any other active player in theleague. 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 itand think, They're animals," he says. "They look at us like we'reanimals for entertainment.

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

Yet it doeshappen. The ramifications of NFL collisions have been thrust into the publicconsciousness in recent months, blurring the cartoon. Numerous stories havechronicled the fate of players diagnosed with serious brain damage frommultiple concussions. Retired players are pressuring the league for betterhealth benefits as they hobble around on knees and hips that no longerfunction. 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 youlook around and see former NFL players dying at an early age or just looking alot older than they are. Scary, man."

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

Big Hit 2
Feb. 10, Honolulu

Athleticallyspeaking, Brian Moorman lies somewhere between the guy on the couch watchingNFL 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 alsoa former small-town, eight-man high school quarterback from Sedgwick, Kans.,and a onetime Division II national champion in the 400-meter hurdles atPittsburg (Kans.) State. Moorman, a six-year veteran of the Buffalo Bills, isneither slouch nor stud and thus perfectly suited to the task of evaluating theeffect on an average person of a thunderous NFL hit like the one he receivedfrom Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor in February's Pro Bowl.

Onfourth-and-seven from his 48, Moorman took a long snap and ran right on acalled fake punt. As he neared the right sideline, AFC teammate John Lynchshoved NFC linebacker Derrick Brooks out-of-bounds, and Moorman made a haltingcutback that brought him almost to a dead stop. "You cut back on footballinstinct," says Moorman. "It turned out to be not such a goodidea."

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

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

Taylor takes nocredit. Running from the Redskins' practice field after a June workout, hedeclined to discuss the play--or his reputation as one of the fiercest hittersin the league. "Nah, not me," said Taylor. "I'm no bighitter."

THE PHYSICS OFDOMINATION

Science canexamine collisions and assign cold numbers to them. "Think of Jim Brownversus Dick Butkus," says Timothy Gay, professor of physics at Nebraska andauthor of Football Physics: The Science of the Game. "What is the force ofthat hit? Well, you're talking about classical physics, which puts us in theprovince of Isaac Newton: Force equals mass times acceleration. What you comeup with in this case is that each man exerts about 1,500 pounds of force, orthree quarters of a ton, on the other. Which is why they call football acontact sport."

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

In reality, an NFLcollision is far more complex on physical and psychological levels. Mostpointedly, 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, plantedhis foot and spun away from the defender. "The problem was, I didn't seethe safety [Michael Lewis], and I spun right into him," says Moss. "Hecaught me straight in the back, full speed. All the energy just went out of mybody. I felt it for the rest of the season."

Then there is thedefensive player's perspective. "It's the most perfect feeling in the worldto know that you've hit a guy just right, that you've maximized the physicalpain 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 yourenergy goes into his body. You feel the life just go out of him. You've takenall of this man's energy and just dominated him."

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

BIG HIT 3
Nov. 26, Baltimore

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

"They were inshotgun," says Scott, scribbling characters on the paper. "In shotgunthe center makes his [blocking-assignment] calls and then puts his head downbefore 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 andthen change it up on them."

A review of theplay 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 centerputs his head down, Scott runs to Hartings's right, all the way to the outsideof the defensive front, on what is called a naked edge. "Now they'reoutflanked," says Scott. "And they're going to have to make some harddecisions about who to block."

At the snapPittsburgh right tackle Max Starks steps back as if to block onrushingBaltimore linebacker Adalius Thomas. Instead, Thomas drops into zone coverage,leaving Starks unoccupied while Scott begins his blitz sprint. It's too latefor 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 seeScott. "I've got a free shot with 15 yards of steam, and he doesn't knowI'm coming," says Scott. "Once in a lifetime."

Scott chops hissteps briefly when Roethlisberger raises the ball as if to throw, but after BigBen pulls the ball back down, Scott lowers his helmet and plows his face maskand 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 hisback, his legs flopping inertly.

"He wasweightless, like I hit him in outer space," says Scott. "I heard himmake 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 himout 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 beinterviewed at length about the shot but said through a Steelers' spokesman,"It was a great hit."

BLACKOUT

In professionalfootball--in all football--machismo readily trumps common sense. A playerrendered senseless by a crushing hit thinks two things: Get up, and don't showweakness. Much blame has been directed by the media and by damaged formerplayers at coaches for pressuring athletes to play while injured, specificallyafter suffering concussions. While the criticism is fair, players often refuseto acknowledge their own compromised condition.

"Everybodyblacks out," says Eagles cornerback Lito Sheppard. "Anybody who isplaying football at this level and says he has never played blacked out islying. You get hit, and you're out on your feet. But as a man, you get upbecause you don't want your homeboys seeing you down on the ground, crawlingaround. You have to show no fear, no damage. By the next play, you start tocome back around. Not to say that you have all your senses, but you stay outthere."

On a play severalyears ago Strahan came clean across the line of scrimmage, turned to rush thequarterback 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 ofhis head. "I was out of it," says Strahan. "But Westbrook isstanding over me, shouting, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah,' and pointing at me. So Ibounced 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 recoveredyet. I don't think I can handle that yet."

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

There is more thanbravery at work. Players are evaluated by their production, and no one produceswhile sitting on the bench with an ice bag on his neck. Many players applaudthe league's increased vigilance in diagnosing and monitoring concussions. Theywant to be saved from themselves. "Most people know the smart thing is tocome out, for one play or one series or whatever, after you get knockedwoozy," 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 atthe Cowboys' 45-yard line, awaiting a punt from the Indianapolis Colts' HunterSmith. The kick drifted to Newman's right, near the sideline. He shuffledtoward the ball and stole a glance at Kelvin Hayden, the Colts' gunner, oroutside tackler. "It looked like we got a pretty good jam on thegunner," says Newman. "So I made a decision not to call a faircatch." But in the time between Newman's glance and his catch, Hayden hadworked himself free. "They had me in a double vice," says Hayden,"but I beat the vice."

At practically thesame 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 thecatch, briefly cradling the ball with two hands, when Hayden lowered his helmetand crashed into Newman's chin. Newman was immediately thrown horizontal andlanded square on his back.

"First thing Iremember was thinking, What in the hell just happened?" says Newman, whosat 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 mouthguard. Of course, as soon as I got up, I was p.o.'d because I knew I was goingto be on "Jacked Up". Sure enough: Yours truly, Number 1."

JACKED UP

In april 2003 ESPNsenior coordinating producer Mike Leber was on a flight from Houston toHartford, silently brainstorming ways in which the network might spice up itsMonday Night Countdown. Specifically, Leber sought to create personalizedsegments 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 "SundayDrive" for Jaworski (exploiting the onetime quarterback's chalkboardskills). Neither would resonate like his pick for Jackson. Mixing the formerlinebacker's surname with a visceral description of the plays, Leber chose"Jacked Up". It has been one of the most popular--andcontroversial--segments in the history of the ubiquitous network.

It's a simpleconcept: 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'snot 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. Ahit 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 actinvolving people or objects. Last winter, at a small-town high school hockeygame in Connecticut, an open-ice body check was greeted with a "Jackedup!" chant from the student body.

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

Yet while Jacksoncalls his involvement in the segment "rewarding"--and, according to anESPN spokesman, the league hasn't objected to it--"Jacked Up" has alsobeen roundly criticized by media watchdogs. "People say it encouragesviolence," says Jackson. "I don't think it either promotes or detractsfrom violence. The collisions are very appealing to NFL fans. The players loveto be on the segment, but I can guarantee you none of them are out there on thefield, thinking about "Jacked Up" while they're playing. They have tomake decisions too quickly."

Big Hit 5
Sept. 17, Cincinnati

Cleveland brownssafety Brian Russell had to make just such a timely decision on the secondweekend of last season. The Browns were trailing the Bengals 34-10 late in thefourth quarter when Cincinnati lined up in a four-wideout set onthird-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 up12 yards deep, on the hash mark.

At the snapJohnson 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 1.9seconds after the snap, but the pass was high and behind Johnson. Russell hadread the play from the start. "They're way ahead [on the scoreboard], sothey're probably not going to throw a deep ball," says Russell. "Thatmeans I'm not going to fly out of there in my backpedal. I'm sittingflat-footed and looking to drive forward on the ball. Chad Johnson was realwide, so I'm thinking slant.

"Once I seethe receiver release, my eyes go to the quarterback.At that point you get afraction of a second to decide if you're going for the ball or going for thehit. 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, andif you get there a little early, they throw the flag. If you try to stop andwait, to time it perfectly all the time, you'll never make any plays. This isthe game we play. I have to be physical. You have to pull the trigger and makea play."

Bodden jumped thecut and intercepted the ball in front of Johnson, who was reaching back, fullyextended and wide open for Russell's blow. Russell went airborne and connectedwith 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 46seconds before rising and walking slowly off the field.

Johnson, whodeclined to talk with SI about the hit, stood bleeding on the sideline whilethe game clock expired. In the postgame locker room he was glassy-eyed. Whenreporters asked Johnson about the play and he was unable to recall it, Bengals'p.r. director Jack Brennan cut short the interview session. Johnson receivedstitches in his chin and suffered a concussion, but he played the followingweekend in a win over Pittsburgh.

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

"I try to leadwith a shoulder," says Russell, who became a free agent after the seasonand signed with the Seattle Seahawks, "but in the middle of a play there'sno time to stop and wonder if you're doing it right. And while you're hittingwith your shoulder pads, you can't put your helmet in your pocket. It's rightthere."

PADS? WHO NEEDSPADS?

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

Redskins tackleJon Jansen, an eight-year veteran, wears minimum body armor. "Nobody wearspads anymore," he says. "I try to find the smallest possible pair oflegal 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 atall.

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

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

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

Big Hit 6
Dec. 17, East Rutherford, N.J.

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

Strong safetyQuintin Mikell was sitting deep on the same hash, reading Manning. "I couldsee he was going to try to thread the ball in there," says Mikell, "butI thought Dawk had enough coverage that Eli was going to have to floatit."

Manning didn'tfloat it, but he threw short and to Shockey's back shoulder, forcing Shockey tobrake, turn back toward the quarterback and reach out with both arms. In thisawkward position, Shockey was able to juggle the ball only briefly beforelosing it. Just as the ball fell away, Mikell unloaded on Shockey's back andright shoulder. "I weigh 200 pounds, and Shockey weighs 250," saysMikell. "In that situation I just launched with everything I had. I wasn'tthinking about interference or anything else. I just know if he catches thatball, I'm in trouble."

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

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

HIT STICK, TRUCKSTICK

The most effectiveinstrument of mayhem in football is not the helmet, not the shoulder pad, notthe forearm. It is the handheld controller that connects EA Sports'sMadden 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 wasthe top-selling video game in North America, selling more than six millionunits. The name Madden is arguably more closely associated with the video gamethan with John Madden's work as a television analyst or his Hall of Famecoaching career.

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

"Theinteresting thing about big hits in our game is that it parallels the real NFLgame," 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, butwhen you see one, it takes your experience to a new level. We've tried to makean NFL simulation, but we also want you to have fun."

In 2004, with thelaunch of Madden NFL 05, EA added a feature called the Hit Stick for defensiveplayers, which allows gamers to attempt spectacular, crushing hits by using aparticular movement on the controller. The following year the Truck Stick, foroffensive players, was added. The templates for the most spectacular blows areformed in a two-tiered process: first, with motion-capture football played byathletes on artificial turf in a warehouse in Vancouver; and second, by meldingthe real-life hits with software called endorphin to enhance and synthesize thehits. The latter process takes place in EA's Orlando office, where Ortizsupervises a staff of about 140 on Madden. "The system takes hits to a newlevel," says Ortiz. "On the turf, with motion capture, you can only goso far with real players before you put people in jeopardy. But the softwareallows us to create even more exaggerated hits. This year we have someridiculous hits, like helicopter spins."

The NFL is abusiness partner with EA on the Madden franchise and retains creative controlover the final product. According to an EA source, the NFL is wary of Madden'saccentuating violence but in the end has signed off on all editions of the gamein circulation. "If it looks silly," says Ortiz, "we don't useit."

For those hits, EAsells NFL Street, a wild hybrid of Madden set in a stylized urban street. Itbears 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 inthree years of production.

Big Hit 7
Dec. 3, New Orleans

There are timeswhen neither player feels like a winner after a collision. The San Francisco49ers were driving at the Saints' 14-yard line, when tailback Frank Gore ran aswing route to the right side. Saints corner Jason Craft, who lined up close tothe line of scrimmage, immediately read the play and ran at Gore. "My firstthought 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 justmake the hit."

Quarterback AlexSmith's pass was deflected by defensive end Charles Grant. Gore, reacting tothe tip, reached back and opened his torso to Craft, who drilled Gore in thechest 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 theair," says Gore. "I'm not going to lie to you, man--it hurt. I did alittle flip, and it knocked the wind out of me."

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

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

NO WAY OUT

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

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

Yet the NFL andits players would appear to be trapped in an endless loop, with a problem thatis resolvable only to a point. Russell, the Seahawks' strong safety, liftsweights and trains 12 months a year. During the season he gets massages onTuesday and Friday to ready his battered body for Sunday's crashes. "Guysare in the weight room every day and doing sprint training at the sametime," says Russell. "They're doing everything they can to make thecollisions more violent than they already are. As a defender, you're trying tobe 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 tohigher levels of violence and physicality. Wedged in the middle is thebillion-dollar relationship between the NFL and the fans who drive itspopularity and crave the very acts that make the game so dangerous.

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

"I popped right up. Then I was like, Ooooo, I can'tbreathe, my wind is gone. I better get back down. I never felt anything likethat before."
--Reggie Bush

"He was weightless, like I hit him in outer space.I laid a man out, and he will never forget it."
--Bart Scott

"I've blacked out several times, especially myfirst couple years in the league. It's a scary thing."
--Jeremy Shockey

PHOTOPhotograph by Kevin C. Cox/WireImage.comBIGBANG
When Brown met Bush at full speed early in the Eagles-Saints playoff game, theshock waves reverberated far and wide.
PHOTOBOB ROSATOCRAWLDADDY
NFL culture calls for a player to bounce back after a big blow; Bush sat outone play after the Brown hit.
PHOTOCHRIS GARDNER/APCRASHLANDING
The Ravens' defensive scheme left Scott with a clear shot at Roethlisberger,the Steelers' most valuable asset.
PHOTOSIMON BRUTYMANDOWN
Devastating blows like the one on Roethlisberger are part of the fabric of thegame--"a great hit," the QB called it.
PHOTOLOUIS DELUCA/DALLAS MORNING NEWS (NEWMAN)SHOWTIME
After being leveled on a punt return against Indy, Newman knew he'd be featuredon "Jacked Up" that week.
PHOTOJOHN SOMMERS II/ICON SMI (JOHNSON)OUCHOCINCO
Johnson's Mohawk offered little protection on a hit that left him dazed in thelocker room afterward.
PHOTORICH KANE/US PRESSWIRECAUGHTIN THE MIDDLE
Shockey is always braced for a blow, and this time an Eagles defender got theworst of the collision.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)