For a while he didn’t move. It wasn’t clear that he could. He was stretched out on his stomach, a few concerned people bending over him, a few others kneeling beside him, as if in prayer, which they may have been. It would have been an apt response.
Seconds ticked by. Still no movement. Just a television replay of what had gone wrong: his head apparently whipping into another player’s leg as the two of them tumbled — no, hurtled — out of bounds, where he remained, a few feet beyond the sideline.
Would he get up? Or would the cart come out? Those of us who’d watched many a previous football game were all too familiar with that dread ritual, when a player unable to walk off the field is instead carried off, on a backboard and a tiny vehicle that might as well be a hearse, in terms of the chill it sends through you.
This game, a playoff match on Saturday between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Indianapolis Colts, was turning into one with too many chills. This player, a star cornerback for the Chiefs named Brandon Flowers, wasn’t its first casualty.
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“They’ve already lost Jamaal Charles to a concussion,” said an announcer, referring to the team’s star running back, who had been forced to leave after only the sixth play of the first half. It was now early in the second half, and the announcer was filling time while Flowers lay motionless. He did so by going through the body count, mentioning yet another Chiefs standout, wide receiver Donnie Avery, who had been knocked out of the game. Avery, like Charles, had suffered a concussion.
At last Flowers sat up. Then he stood, but only to be escorted to the locker room for a medical evaluation. It turned out that he, too, had a concussion, and was done for the day.
The announcer remarked that there’d been a “big-time turnaround in the feel of this game,” in which the Chiefs’ lead was collapsing and the aggregate injuries were something of “a momentum-buster.” What clumsy but telling words. Three men stagger off, their elimination underscoring the plague of serious injuries in this violent sport, and the main take-away is about momentum? That’s the National Football League for you. Broken bodies matter mostly in terms of a broken rhythm.
The Chiefs-Colts contest, on the first weekend of the postseason playoffs, was one of the most thrilling, spectacular football games I’ve ever seen. Somehow, some way, with bursts of luck and feats of extraordinary athleticism, the Colts rallied from a 28-point deficit and staged a comeback that will go into the history books, winning 45-44.
But it was also one of the most discomfiting football games I’ve ever seen, a blunt reminder of how much pain we fans endorse in the service of our pleasure. All in all five players for the Chiefs went down, exiting before the end of the fourth quarter, and the team’s defeat was inextricable from its physical devastation. In the NFL, the spoils often go to the squad that needs the fewest X-rays, crutches, sutures and surgeries.
It has been a sickening season that way. At least eight of the league’s 32 teams were without their first-string quarterbacks before October was over. Some of the quarterbacks who went the distance seemed to do so mainly because their teams’ entire architecture had been designed around their protection. The Denver Broncos, a favorite to go to the Super Bowl, did many things right, but none righter than treating Peyton Manning as if he were a Fabergé egg.
So many other players cracked. Before mid-December, 41 had fallen to season-ending knee injuries, in contrast to just 32 the previous year and 25 the year before that, as Ben Volin reported in The Boston Globe.
It’s difficult to say definitively whether significant injuries overall are on the rise, and it doesn’t matter. They’re too prevalent, period. And the NFL needs to go far beyond its efforts thus far to assess and reconsider anything that might be affecting player safety: what kind of equipment, head to toe, they wear; the give of the turf on which they play; the way they train in the offseason. Maybe there should be weight limits. There should certainly be more rest between games and there should probably be fewer of games, though there’s been talk of the league’s moving in the opposite direction.
The status quo won’t do. It’s untenable. It’s arguably unconscionable. On Saturday, the sight of a crumpled Chief with distraught teammates hovering over him became so common that the announcer remarked, in a voice too glib, on the “injury bug” that was “contagious for Kansas City at the wrong time now.”
There’s never a right time. And it’s no little bug.
© 2014, New York Times News Service
Frank Bruni is a regular columnist for The New York Times