Does anyone remember the football of the '60s and '70s, when the game was defined by physicality, toughness, hitting your opponent in the mouth and taking people’s heads off? If not, YouTube it.
The game has evolved since then and become more safe, but football is still a violent sport played with the intent to inflict pain upon others and to dominate your opponent with maximum physical force.
It’s not, however, about injuring your opponent.
Injuries should never be a goal or desired outcome by anyone who plays the game, but hurting your opponent should be. A primary strategic element to a victory in this sport is to break the will and compromise the effectiveness of anyone wearing a different-colored jersey.
The only way to break another man’s will is through pain.
The difference between injuring and hurting another player is this: When a player is injured, he’s probably going to miss the rest of the game and will likely miss other games in the future as well. When a player is hurt, he typically has no debilitating damage inhibiting him from finishing out the game or playing in future contests. He is rendered temporarily ineffective by means of pain.
For example, a safety who launches himself into the chest of a wide receiver trying to catch the ball serves two purposes: to prevent the catch on that particular play, and to inflict enough pain that that player refuses to venture into the middle and look for a catch for the remainder of the game.
The line between these two has become significantly more blurred over the last few years with the developments and reactions to head injuries and a new awareness of the long-term damage that can result from numerous concussions.
A Personal Moment
While I was a junior at the University of California, we were a team looking to prove ourselves on the road against Illinois. Before the half in a very close game, Illinois was lined up to punt the ball to our return man.
At the snap of the ball, I made a failed attempt to block the punt and quickly ran back, looking for someone to block to help our return man. As I was running, I saw the returner as he was cutting back across the field. He had a nice wall of guys giving him a beautiful alley down our own sideline.
I changed angles and sprinted in that direction, hoping to clear the way. As I ran, I could see three guys running shoulder-to-shoulder for the cutoff angle. I knew at that moment that I was in a position to do something I had never seen before. I built up speed and headed straight for all three guys; my intent was to launch my entire body in the air and take out all three at once.
As I closed in on my targets, I waited for just the right moment to launch myself, shoulders-first. When I left my feet, my entire body was parallel to the ground.
Both guys on the outside must have seen me and veered off, leaving one poor, unaware guy in the middle to absorb the entire blow.
Needless the say, the kid was vaporized when my shoulder sunk into his chest. I could barely feel the impact, and when I got to my feet I could hear and see every single guy on my sideline jumping up and down in reaction to the hit.
Just as I started to celebrate, I looked down at the kid and could see the pain on his face as he laid there holding his ribs. My mood was immediately grounded; I felt nothing pleasurable about hurting another person to such an extent.
The kid was taken to the lockers and never returned to the game. I discovered later that he had suffered broken ribs.
As for the outcome of the return, our man ended up taking the punt all the way to the house for a touchdown.
My hit ended up being the only time in my entire career where I made a SportsCenter "Top 10." The hit was shown over and over again on ESPN that weekend, and it was ranked the eighth-best play on the countdown.
Funny how the big hits get all the glory.
Will Things Change?
These days, hitting a player so hard that he sees stars is quickly becoming demonized and fervently rooted out by league officials in a massive undertaking aimed at increasing player safety. This seems like a worthy attempt at keeping the players safe from long-term injury.
Fair enough, but one still has to wonder: How much of this initiative was spawned from the prevention and resolution of past, current and future lawsuits while simultaneously packaging the sport as good, clean fun for the whole family—a demographic that just so happens to be the most lucrative as well?
What about those remaining players still hanging onto the old-school mentality—who’ve forged a career out of inflicting damage on their opponents while being richly rewarded for it with fame and massive amounts of money? They're playing the game the way they’ve been taught their entire lives.
Asking those guys to rethink such deep-rooted instincts on the grounds of some loosely-based moral obligation is almost abstract for them. They play this sport not as malicious villains but as proud and humble men who often have hearts of gold off the field—men such as Troy Polamalu, Ray Lewis and Brain Dawkins.
The violent mentality of the game from the standpoint of the player who inflicts it can best be understood by examining the mentality of a boxer who enters the ring with the intent to physically beat up and demolish his opponent. The boxer is not looking to cause permanent damage to his opponent, but he is in fact looking to hurt him.
Both sports utilize this component as a critical element to victory; neither the boxer nor the football player is without compassion for the very person they’re trying to hurt. This is a mutually understood part of the sport, and it very much adds to its overall value.
For those who wish to participate, strap up. For others who prefer to watch, tune in. For all who are turned off by violent sports, feel free to exercise your right to indulge in whatever pastime that best suits your interests and comfort level, but don't vilify football players for doing what is only second nature.