When you have played the game for as long as I have, sounds can illustrate more than involvement. The crack rings out to all veterans; like a bowler hearing the striking of the pins and sensing where the ball struck. The noises of the game become lyrical, a song so familiar that you don’t even realize you’re listening.
The pop of a chinstrap, the grunt of anguish, or the chilling clash of helmets. These are the sounds that resonate. These are the sounds of the game – the sounds of pain. But even these noises become nonchalant in the heat of battle. The sound I heard on this play struck my drum with a piercing tone. The pitch and tenor screamed “destruction".
Here’s the setting: the middle of the third quarter at Ford Field in Detroit. The game, Bills vs. Lions, so far has felt very standard, which is to say exhilarating, forceful, and routine all at the same time. As expected going into this one, defensive units for both sides have shown their prowess. Our Lions offense has been able to move the ball to some extent, but without a score you are just delaying defeat.
A stalled drive leads to a punting situation where I am the “personal protector” to the punter. I have the responsibility for making the cadence calls determining what the blocking count will be and when the ball will be snapped.
The Bills' punt return unit is in a standard six-man box, meaning both of our outside gunners had two Bills guys trying to hold them up. On film this shows they will forgo the block attempt and set up their return. Before my “set” call, the R1, the first possible rusher on the outside, started creeping in. “Easy Easy” I call out, alerting my brothers that a new count was coming and showing the opponents’ special teams’ coordinator that we had studied.
There is nothing special about the subsequent kick. I cross through the line of scrimmage toward the punt returner; I see their R4 has the responsibility for blocking me. We both do a little two-step dance and I swipe his hands away. He is faster than me so I hope to control our encounter with superior body positioning. Just before we clear the mosh pit, another opponent from my left crosses in front of my face but doesn’t hit me. This is peculiar, because it was a rare day when a player passed up the chance to strike someone in the "wrong" color jersey. This guy was on a mission.
Then, I heard it!
I didn’t see this particular hit, but I heard it -- the piercing shrill of a chord played out of tune.
The game’s speed creates this chorus of chaos and with that same speed the play is over. I am not in on the actual tackle, but everyone in the pile feels the requirements of the job. So I separate myself from the others and initiate the post-play process that follows the dead-ball whistle. Though my body is intact my ears scream to me there is a break in the game’s cadence.
The usual chorus between plays has the celebration by the victor retreating to the sidelines, thumping his chest and relishing in the carnage left behind. The defeated shelters his anguish hoping for a moment to regroup and get his opportunity at revenge. But on this day the chorus is interrupted by a sudden crescendo. There will be no prolonged mocking celebration by the victor and the conquered will not be able to save his shame. A collision has occurred leaving only the broken in its wake.
There is chemistry among men who put on the mask. We who prove our worth on the gridiron are all a part of one organism, the enigma that is the game of football. This game is a self-sustaining entity and its honor is bigger than any member of its body. Every man who straps up knows that he is expendable and eventually will be thrown away to the betterment of the game.
Whistles blow alerting all that something has unfolded. Two of my brothers lay on the battlefield; lifeless!
I never even saw the hit; yet hearing it and feeling it; would change me forever.
The realities of these events come when our defensive unit does not even approach the field. The 30-second window of diagnosis that the entire stadium understands when a player is down has reached its limits.
One player, Lions jersey, begins rolling around in pain; a good sign? A serious issue or the usual discomfort associated with most, if not every play? Most of these interludes are met with "tape him up and blow the whistle so we can start anew!" But this time is not business as usual.
This time is not business as usual.
Each of us retreats to his own place of contemplation and reflection. Everyone feels the fear. At this moment, I honestly can’t imagine anyone feeling it more than I do. I begin to question the cause of the scene and the game’s simplicity begins to strangle me. Someone was given a job to do, accomplish it, and now it’s the devil to pay. There is no reasoning with a man whose paycheck comes from the outlet of his aggressions. Nor should there be. Each of us knows we are trying to take the food off each other’s table. This sense of urgency and finality is what provides the game with the ultimate competitive spirit.
It is a numbing realization that our brother lying on the field may feel even more pain with the review of this game than the game itself. In film this moment will be glorified … "Dude got invited to the cocktail party!"
When a player is knocked unconscious his muscles contract and both arms are locked in an L shape that can be cruelly described as holding two cocktail glasses. This is the grease that turns our wheels of competition!
The TV broadcast comes back from a commercial as the trainers back everyone up. No. 42’s eyes are being probed with flashlights and the doctors speaking in mumbles. Medical directions start to become loud and clear enough to make each of us feel as if we are participating. We all search for answers and the universal divine becomes the safe harbor for us all. A church-like quality begins to descend upon the field; quiet and solemn, the spectacle of a Sunday in the NFL has been halted.
Why did this have to happen? Was this really the game we grew up playing? Why run this risk? No matter the fear or doubt, we all come back to the truth. There is no one to blame for our pursuits. “This is the business we have chosen!"
We all accepted the terms when we signed on the dotted line. Police, military, firemen all put their lives on the line to save others. But our calling was not to save or keep from harm but to inflict it, so others may be amused. The money may cloud the subject or the sacrifice involved but regardless of your particular perspective, this is our dream. The payoff at the end of a long journey. Then you begin to realize that with each snap, the boogie man is unleashed onto the field and quickly this dream also becomes our nightmare.
The face-mask is being unscrewed with a power drill, care is taken not to provoke the neck, the nerve bunker that is already inflamed from today and partially disabled from his career. His helmet remains; enough can be seen in his eyes.
A huge indicator for professional athletes is their eyes. A tried, true veteran can lock eyes with someone at this level and tell you what their opponent ate for breakfast. The eyes are also a window to the soul, an indicator of one’s self-confidence and fire. Looking around at our peers one sees a familiar story, only with a different end. These eyes have begun showing the one thing you cannot afford to show in this arena: vulnerability.
Some may think that it is fear, but fear can be seen in anyone if you know how to look. A true pro admits his fears and overcomes them. To show weakness; is giving a room full of hunters a bull’s eye.
On this Sunday, the stadium has become our Holy Ground, supported by our common plight. We are in Church and simply we are all men before our maker. There is no need for preparation. The requests are obvious. Petitions from our hearts open to joinder by anyone in earshot; as the pleading gets louder the only response can be, "Yes, Jesus, protect our brother." But before the service goes any further, I need to face the haunting voice in my head that is questioning if I am still willing to pay this price -- the price that I acknowledge more pain and more risk will be required when this storm passes.
I escape to an unoccupied space, every step taking my thoughts to a different part of my career. The silence that has been birthed out of this player’s brokenness, gives me this moment to reflect. The elephant in the room and my brother on the gurney are blurring the rewards now.
My whole world is halted as I look into the stands and see my friend, partner, and wife holding our infant daughter. Oblivious to the awkwardness of the moment, my first born is wearing her pink head phones and playing with her mother’s hair. The risk begins to overwhelm me.
I stop in my tracks and look down at the turf. A conversation begins with my cleats. “Which way are we gonna go? Are you still in this?” I look up and in a stadium of 50,000 I see only my girls. Survival instinct starts to prevail over my commitment to the game, I take a step! I am hoping to find an escape from this dilemma.
Oh, there have been other times when I have struggled with these issues. Anyone who trains with an appetite for blood has had moments of challenge. Never have I acted upon them. Never have they won out over my honor! They have always been suppressed, always been lost in the next play. This time it is different. I am craving finality, craving an end to this gamble. I begin searching for the strength to leave this all behind me. I take another step, focusing on the image of my wife and child and the fear of leaving them behind, one way or another. The mantra that I have developed over the last couple years returns, arising to the surface. “I am doing this for you. I am doing this for you”! With my next step toward the locker room, I tell myself; this also I am doing for them!
Then the game reminds me of its beauty with a simple memory. My mind takes me back to the first time I wanted to quit, the first time my body, mind, and soul had all reached their bitter end. On my hands and knees at Mission Viejo High, dreading the last few 110 yard-sprints required of me. I had reached my breaking point, when an arm lifted me away from the sweat and vomit. I am staring at a teammate who just became a brother and I am realizing the greatest lesson football will teach me, I control my breaking points.
The blood, sweat, and tears that forged the ‘Never Quit’ attitude I have begun to cherish, made me take a step back toward my football family on this day, in my NFL dream. I am never sure where it comes from or what part of me it is actually being shown, but that beast within, that part of me willing to accept the pain and destruction instructs me to sit down, at the end of the bench. The far end, the closest place to the locker room without being there. The voice in my head begins to grow silent.
No one ever watches the guys on the bench, as if they are hiding in plain sight. The bench is where the emotions from the game are grudgingly unmasked. The only other player on the bench is the survivor from the impact, the hit that led to all of this. He looks confused and distant. I knew this look. His train of thought is processing more the train, than the thought.
The victor and I both sit in a quiet haze – him over having done his job and survived and me over having survived and wondering why I would tempt fate again! I give him a tap on the pads as if to say "you did your job." The confusion of his look is endless, and again all can be seen in the eyes. Tomorrow he will receive a plus for this play, possibly even a BIG HIT acknowledgement. Today, it doesn’t seem so grand.
I follow the tape on my wrists. They are in step with the trembling of my hands; both mimicking the struggle going on in my mind.
Ping! Walk away, you have gotten enough.
Pong! Never quit on your teammates.
Ping! What if you were lying there with your wife and child looking on?
Pong! This is my dream.
Is it still quitting if I walk away ahead?
Secured to the gurney now, our fallen brother has been deemed ready for moving. The crowd, players too, all waiting for the moment of relief. Where is the sign? That sign that is meant for the stadium to show there is still a glimmer of hope. With a simple thumb up or a wave, the stadium collectively exhales into, "He is going to be fine."
I have no idea why a fallen gladiator gives an acknowledgement to his audience. Is this done out of appreciation or a debt owed? Regardless, there it is, an abbreviated gesture from restrained arms. He maintains his ever-dwindling place in this game. Not only that but he sends the warriors message: he will fight another day.
In the end, we are more mercenaries than warriors. Highly skilled weapons that become engulfed into a world we only dreamed of. Addicts to a drug too sweet and a reward too high. The risk, mostly over shadowed by the reward, becomes even more remote because of the addiction. When did I lose perspective? Why is it so difficult to regain a balance on my life?
The wheels of the ambulance begin to roll off the stadium floor. Today’s offering to the football gods going along with it. By the time the whistle blows none of us know, nor by this time even care, if the resumption of the game is helpful to the man left on the altar.
Is it that simple? It sounds like applause but the undertow of the noise is a call for more blood. “Caesar, we who are about to die, salute you!” A round of applause is supposed to put us all at ease about what just happened? This idea plays into the Golden Rule of football: Next Man Up. Sooner or later another sacrifice will be made.
One of the few guarantees a player has in this game is injury. That is why you can’t quit on your team. Everyone has to pick up for his fallen brother. One man’s fate becomes another man’s future. These morals, that on any other day I can validate as preparation for life’s struggles, today imprison me.
My dream has become haunting.
No one in cleats is fooled. The price was known when we walked onto the field. Even though the toll has been paid momentarily it does not mean the demon's appetite is satisfied. But I am a warrior, and when the drums beat of war, I grab my armor. This final thought forces me to stand and again buckle my helmet. I have always known the danger, well, at least that there was a danger. The specifics and statistics are coming to show an element I was never made aware of.
The two heartbeats sitting now in row 16 section 120 have placed a different lens on this entire fantasy. I feel my wife’s eyes on the back of my jersey. She knows the weight this injury must have placed upon me. She knows my fears, and she knows she must pay the price as well. Her expectation after a game is to bring me home, beat up and broken down, but home.
She sits watching with pride and fear as I prepare to do my job, knowing with each collision a part of me is lost. A football credo begins echoing in my ears, ‘Do your Job’! Undecided, I begin to wonder if my numb legs will take me to the locker room or actually choose to head back into the action? Am I actually considering going back out onto that field? Even considering this after all that has just happened tells me more about myself than I would care to know.
The game resumes and all instantly feel the routine of the next play. I begin to pantomime what I think I should be doing. Awaiting the call that will throw me back into the fire. Whatever the play call, the criteria will be the same. ‘See that 250-pound mountain of a man over there, go earn your check’.
Humbly I stand at the ready. I know that my Rubicon has been crossed. I will no longer look to punish my opponent. I will try to accomplish my job with as little of that as necessary. My new mission is to walk off this field today. No longer can I compete like those willing to risk it all. No longer will I sacrifice myself for the cause.
I feel the difference in my very next step. It isn’t just the hit tonight, but the accumulation of all the hits, the blurs, and the recent articles that have shaken me. This particular hit has made perfectly clear to me that through my struggle within; I am now looking for the next possible exit sign. What I need is the courage to do it. How can I turn away from the brothers I have bled with and the game that has given so much? Nothing should delay this decision but again I stand ready for the next play. Changing directions in life is difficult but this would be changing what I have used to define myself for 20 years. By whatever name you call it, this quitting business comes for us all. The game has become my career and this career has been my dream, clouded by a nightmare.
I never even saw the hit. Yet hearing it, feeling it, has changed me forever.
I began this dream as an unbreakable beast. Quickly, I sober up to the pain and fear that is keeping my broken parts together. Chin strapped, looking ready for the call but thinking as I took that next step onto the field, ‘I am Done’!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jed Collins, 30, spent seven seasons in the NFL with eight teams, working his way from undrafted free agent and practice squad player to starting fullback for the New Orleans Saints and Detroit Lions. He retired after the 2015 season. From 2004-07 he was an all-everything standout at Washington State, where he played linebacker, fullback and tight end. “Jedzilla,” as Cougar fans affectionately dubbed him, earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors as a senior in 2007 after catching 52 Alex Brink passes for 512 yards. Today he is an associate with the Seattle-based wealth management firm Brighton Jones.