Richard Justice: The NFL is a sport of power and grace and beauty. In a moment like this, we’re also reminded of its brutality

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Joshua A Bickel/AP/Shutterstock (13692270de) Buffalo Bills players and staff pray for Buffalo Bills’ Damar Hamlin during the first half of an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, in Cincinnati. The game has been postponed after Buffalo Bills’ Damar Hamlin collapsed, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced Bills Bengals Football, Cincinnati, United States – 02 Jan 2023

Richard Justice: The NFL is a sport of power and grace and beauty. In a moment like this, we’re also reminded of its brutality

   Former Texans offensive lineman Steve McKinney once said there were times when a collision on the field would leave him in such pain that he was unable to comprehend the play his quarterback had just called in the huddle. In times like that, the teammate next to him on the offensive line would whisper something like: “Lean on me, brother, I got you.”

   Daryl Johnston once got stood up in a pile of Cowboys and 49ers as he struggled for an extra yard or two. At that moment, alarm bells went off in his brain.

   “We all knew to look for Ronnie Lott,” Johnston remembered. “He was like a heat-seeking missile.”

   Lott was one of the best and more fierce defensive backs to ever play in the NFL. All these years later, Johnston doesn’t have much recollection of Lott smashing into him.

   “I just remember guys yelling for me to get up,” Johnston once told me. “What I didn’t know is that Ronnie was also down, so they wanted me back on my feet before him.”

   Johnston did get up and somehow got back to the Cowboys’ sideline that afternoon. In telling that story, he remembered another scary moment during his days at Syracuse.

   “I look up at the scoreboard,” he said, “and asked someone, `How did we get 14 points?’ I was told I’d just scored a touchdown. I had no memory of that.”

   I thought of McKinney and Johnston on Monday night as medical personnel frantically scrambled to save the life of 24-year-old Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin after he suffered cardiac arrest on the field.

   Bengals receiver Tee Higgins had collided with Hamlin at full speed, hitting him in the head and chest area. Hamlin popped back up, took a step or two, and then collapsed backward, his body limp.

   What followed was terrifying. Players from both teams wept as CPR was administered and an ambulance was driven onto the field. ESPN announcers and analysts did their best to describe what they were seeing and feeling in a moment horrific beyond words.

   To see the pain on the faces of those players and coaches was to understand there was no way the game would continue, and the NFL eventually made it official to a silent, stunned crowd in Cincinnati and millions more watching at home.

   This was to be the best of the season’s Monday night games, a matchup of two of the best quarterbacks in the game: Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow and Buffalo’s Josh Allen.

   Instead, we got a devastating reminder that this game we love so much, this game of skill and beauty and grace, this game featuring incredible athletes, this game in which coaches routinely work 80- and 90-hour weeks, pouring their lives into the preparation for a game like this, we were reminded that it’s also a dangerous, barbaric game.

   Over the next few days, you’re likely to read and hear the usual stuff about how football should not be allowed. Yes, it’s a dangerous game with occasional grotesque injuries.

   But it’s also embedded into the fabric of this country. In 2021, 95 of the 100 highest-rated television shows in the United States were football games. Seventy-five of those were NFL games. We simply can’t get enough of it.

   Millions of young men have learned invaluable lessons about teamwork, and sacrifice, and preparation from football. Whether you allow your son (or daughter) to participate is a call you must make. The NFL and its players have worked hard to make the game safer and to be more proactive in identifying concussions. But it’s also a dangerous game. No one could argue otherwise.

   In Damar Hamlin’s case, we may never know if that hit triggered cardiac arrest. This moment came near the end of a great day of football highlighted by Tulane’s stunning upset of USC in the Cotton Bowl, a moment players on both teams will remember forever.

   Forty-eight hours earlier, TCU had enjoyed one of the school’s finest moments in an upset of Michigan that put the Horned Frogs in next Monday’s national championship game against Georgia. Nevertheless, nothing can erase the memory of the Bills and Bengals gathered around Hamlin. That memory will endure long after the touchdown runs and acrobatic catches.

    During my decade or so covering the team formerly known as the Washington Redskins, one of the biggest games of that era was a playoff contest against the Niners at Candlestick Park.

   Washington’s left tackle, Pro Bowler Jim Lachey, was attempting to play that day despite extensive torn rib cartilage. Before the game, he took multiple painkilling injections in the rib area.

   Finally, he believed he had the pain isolated to one small area. He pointed to it and told the team doctor: “Give me one more (shot) right here, and I’m good.”

    The doctor refused, saying he’d reached his limit. Lachey played only a bit that afternoon before heading to the sideline. Weeks later at the Super Bowl, I ran into his wife, Ann, and asked how her husband was feeling. She said that he was still unable to move comfortably and that doctors told him his recovery might take a few more weeks.

   During those years around the Redskins, future Hall of Fame receiver Art Monk and a collection of teammates had a Monday ritual: massages and chiropractic treatment.

   “The chiropractor joked once that a football player’s spine resembled someone that had been in a car accident,” Monk once said. “He didn’t get much of a laugh from any of us.”

    In the wake of what happened to Damar Hamlin on Monday night in Cincinnati, every single one of us is consciously or unconsciously reevaluating our love of football, weighing its beauty against its brutality. We watch every game understanding that equation. On days like Monday, we’re reminded of it in the most brutal way possible.

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