My Experience Comes of Age Today
I really hate November 29th, I have had a tendency to recess into a shell on that day and do not talk or communicate with anyone. But last year was the 20th November 29th, and my psyche is getting better and I am writing about it, so maybe writing does heal sometimes. The people who know me know that I have always hidden the fact of what happened on that day from most of the world.
People know I played professional ball somewhere, but most do not even know my jersey number. The worst part about 21 years ago is I was not a replacement player playing during the 23 day strike by NFL players. I was one of the guys sitting at home wanting to be on the field. Maybe that is why that day hit me so hard. It was the first game in 3 weeks and I had alot of adreneline stored up for someone.
I would have never thought in 1984 when I signed my first contract that I would be sitting here on MLBlogs in 2008 spilling out the days’ events of my life’s worst experience. I had just signed a multi-year contract for 2.5 million dollars, which included a $ 250,000. signing bonus. That put me in the mood to want to explode out of the gate and show the world what i could do on the turf.
I thought I was getting myself set for life, or at least set for 40 odd years. I was 24, and thought I had the world ahead of me, and could dream on any star in the night’s sky. Little did I know what would happen 3 short years later would turn my fairy tale into a nightmare.
I was drafted duirng the first day, but not in the top rounds, but I was one of the top 20 corners to come off the board during the day. But, I felt like I was a bit dishonored by my hometown team one pick earlier. They had called and expressed a deep interest in signing and drafting me. That put me in a instant state of euphoria that quickly slumped into disappointment and second guessing. They passed on me for a slow Offensive Lineman that didn’t make the team out of preseason camp.
I would not have looked any better with a winking pirate on my helmet than a horseshoe, but the certain fact that I would have had familiar faces in the stands, and actually played better in front of my home crowd. I might not have even had the injury if I had been picked by this team that played on natural grass, and not Astroturf.
I had a pretty good 3 years until that home game in late November 1987. They had a second down and 15 yards to go for a first down. I was in man to man coverage with a slick wideout from a school in my hometown who had made it to the starting 11 by playing inspired and energetic football. He could not outrun me, but he could however, deke me into over committing at times with a hip roll or shoulder bob. He had only beat me once that day for 5 yards and knew I could hit like a locomotive if I got some steam up before hitting him.
I felt like the next one was going to send a violent message to him.
He started off the line faking a curl pattern, before stopping and pivoted to run a inside post route. I did not bite on it and was in a great position to intercept or punish him if the QB made the throw. I hit him as the ball was about to hit his hands, and somehow got my right mit in there to push the ball out of his grasp. A great cover play, but the end result was not a triumph by any measure of the word.
I came down between an Astroturf seam on the field. These seams could cut you like a knife, and being the first edition of turf developed, had seams that sometimes moved and got bigger during a game. During this play, my chinstrap buckle got caught in the seam somehow and it jerk my head to the side like a cowboy pulling in a calf with a rope. It was a violent and fast motion that left me vulnerable.
To make matters worse, one of the safeties and a middle linebacker were also covering on the play and did not see the ball come out from their angle. Thinking it was a live play, they came in hard trying to helping me take down this reciever and added to the intial force on me. That was a combined 3 players worth of forward motion and force steaming full speed into the falling pile of football players. It is the defenses’ job to dish out justice, and I was the one being judged at that moment, not the reciever.
My chinstrap was caught in the seam and jerked my head around to where I thought I saw the name on the back of my jersey. During this, my helmet stayed in the seam area and the full force of all of us hitting the turf rested on my neck and shoulder area.
I instantly felt a pain that I can not even put into words today. It was like a lightning bolt of eletricity had burned into my skin and gone to the bone and burned into it. I felt a sensation like the skin was melting from my body and muscles to an intense reverb from it exiting my body.
I instantly fell under the wide out, and I felt a uneasy and tingly feeling that I knew was not about the great hit, or the impending crash to the turf. My helmet was 3 yards to the east of me still caught in the turf seam. My head was pounding and spinning and I felt like I only had a slight concussion or just lost the wind in my lungs.
I laid there for a few moments and thought I was getting up from the turf. I never got up off that turf that day. I instantly felt the sharp and electric pain again going down my arms and legs to spike at my fingertips and toes. The trainers did not even try to move me. There were a protruding set of telltale bumps on my neck above my shoulders pads that pulsed with my hearbeats and sent a weird pulse of pain down the sides of my body. I was in a neck collar, taped to a board and off the turf in a matter of minutes.
You can’t keep the players standing around getting cold. You can not let another player or your team see you as vulnerable, we were warriors and we needed to stay in focus to do our jobs with authority. You want your team mates minds be on the game, not on a mortality of the cripple on the turf.
Yeah,I know, I used the “C” word.
It was not until I saw the team doctor not look me in the eye that I knew it was bad. I could see out of the corner of my eyes, the opposing teams’ cheerleader with a hand to her mouth, and my defensive guys not looking at me, and standing away from me but within listening distance.
I had one player say something to me. He said,” We need you back as soon as possible. Hits like that keep us in these games.” We were a winning team that year. This was the first time in the past 10 years that the spirit and tradition of those blue and white uniforms had come back to the elite forefront of the game. I did not hear anyone else say anything to me. He was the last member of my team I heard from for some time.
I was hysterical on the cart and in the ambulance. I was put under with a sedative because I was frantically trying to move my lower body and arms. My hands and feet did not move, but my torso was wrecking havoc on the straps holding me down.
When I got to the ER, I was still in my game gear. The ER nurses’ and interns seemed to strip my body of the gear in seconds. I could never of gotten that stuff off that fast myself. I just laid there naked for the world to see. I still could not move my arms or legs. It was not because of the straps, they were now gone with the gurney back into the ambulance. I was given another IV and I dozed off as they worked on me.
I awoke 16 hours later in a room with a few people I did not know. No one close to me was there. I did not have a large local group of people I hung out with up there, it was 1,200 miles from my true home. I awoke with an unusual contraption on my head. I had been given a halo for my head, but not the angel’s kind. I had these screws in the temples and was in a transendental state of motion feeling more robotic than human.
I had almost completely crushed the C discs in my spine above my shoulder blades. I got lucky that my helmet was not tight on my chin or I would be either be getting fitted for wings, or a pitchfork. The doctor said it was a slight fraction of an inch either way and the result would not be to my liking. I had a DNR letter in my contract paperwork that said if I did not have the full use of my facilities, to not save my sorry butt.
The team did not deliver this to the hositpal, and they proceeded to work on me right away that night. With the swelling and the proluding disc in my neck, I had a 40 percent chance of full recovery. I did the thing you would expect at that moment and cursed anything and anyone within hearing range. I forbide my friends to either come in and comfort or pity me in my state. I got cards and letters from fans and the team wishing for a speedy recovery. I even got a card from the rookie wideout. Funny, we had never played against each other in High School even though we were rival schools.
Seriously, a player can not see another player like that. It ruins the inner fiber of confidence to become “the machine” and really wreck hovoc on that feeling invincible on game day. I could, and would not let another player see me until I could hit the ground walking on my own. I got the feeling back in my fingers and legs about 2 days later after the intial swelling went down.
The nerves was damaged, but the human body seems to heal those who have the will and determination at times. I do not mean to dismiss or even patronize anyone who can not get back to their old selves after an accident. I felt blessed and honored at that time to be able to feel my extremities, and knew the road had just started to some type of recovery.
I stayed up there for another 6 months doing the pool and weights for the PT people. I gained full mobility slowly at first again and was told that after the swelling went down, two of the discs popped back into place, but the last one was forever damaged and I would feel its effects at times. To this day, if I try to pop my neck at any time, it sounds like a popcorn machine in my head. It still freaks out some people close to me because it is loud and sounds painful.
These odd side effects were a small thing compared to the pain and uncertainty those first 3 weeks. I got into a recovery training routine and was excited to try and to play again. The only problem was, spinal situations in 1987 are not like todays’ surgeries. There was a 80 percent chance that if I hit my neck like that again, I could be in a chair or worse upon impact, and a 90 percent chance if I hit the disc on anything hard.
With that, I did not retire. I still thought I could find a miracle or situation that would let me play again. But with time, I felt my future family deserved a healthy Dad who could play and frolic with the kids. With that realization, I said farewell to my athletic life and began my post-sports life. I had been a jock for 27 years at that point, since my first time I walked I had been chasing this dream. And I did not know anything else but sports.
I had no direction and spent my money like it was water. I applied for disability payments from the league, but since I was only an active player for 3 years, I had no pension or disability insurance. You could insure yourself for injuries, but most people like myself saw that as admitting we would fail or fall to an injury. That was not in the credo of a warrior in my mind at the time. A player with 5 years active in the league could look forward to a modest pension and some medical benefits.
Unlike the late 80’s, the league today has ongoing studies and research into head and spinal injuries. I was once proud that I had over 10 minor concussions in the span of all those years ,and could still read a stock market portfolio and use a phone. I have since learned the real truth about those head injuries, and I still have effects to this day of their delayed reactions. Memories are dull and forgotten at times. But I would do it all again if asked for the glory of the game.
In those days, the league did not make you attend 3 day seminars on personal finance or financial foundations for when you finish playing the game. You did not have super agents who cried “foul” at the drop of a hat. I would not have drawn that type of attention to myself anyways, I did my own contract and knew the provisions by heart. I pretty much lost everything fast. Took care of family and bills, did a few great vacations involving baseball, mt second love at the time. I also splurged on some great friends and charities. I have no regrets or planned “do overs.”
I lived a great life in those days and loved the attention and adolation. I might not have been an angel, but I was never in the paper for doing the wrong things, or even with the wrong crowds. I feel blessed to still be here. This was written for a cleansing for myself. I have never written about it since that day. I thought I needed to put it down in case something even happened to me because my daughters’ have never heard me speak of those day like this. They were not even born during my career, and I have not had the time or energy to relive it again with them. I hope to some day, but not today….never on this day.