I wish I was telling you a story about making a game-winning touchdown that took my team to the Super Bowl, or perhaps a glorious tale of how my beautiful quarterback sack and fumble helped lead my team to a crucial victory. Unfortunately, my career on the field was without much grandeur or accomplishment to speak of.
Nearly all of my NFL snaps were played on special teams and were relatively uneventful, quite frankly. The importance and impact I had on my teams in the NFL felt equivalent to that of a guy holding a boom mic in a major movie production, which should make sense when you consider that I’ve been named the most valuable player in every single football destination I’ve ever found myself. To go from that level of dominance to basically being an afterthought is an interesting reality to wrestle with.
What I can share here is a play of great personal importance. This play was not one of glory; in fact, it would even be an unremarkable play to watch as a spectator. But for me personally, my life would forever be changed in the wake of this singular event.
This story begins during the first game of the entire preseason, just as I was entering my second year in the league as a member of the Oakland Raiders. Not only was this our first game of the season, but it was the annual Hall of Fame Game, which kicks off the preseason action for the entire league. On that particular night, our opponent was the Philadelphia Eagles.
I was currently in the middle of a highly competitive training camp and was continuing to learn the middle linebacker position while steadily evolving as a professional athlete.
Throughout my experience with football development growing up, I would typically need a year to find my groove and learn the speed of the game. This was very much a pattern of mine, so entering my second year in the NFL, you could imagine there was a lot of excitement and eagerness to get the season started. Needless to say, I expected big things.
Sometime near the end of the first quarter, the Raiders sent out their punt team, of which I was a starting member. I was lined up at the right tackle spot, and my assignment was simple: Block the second man on the line from the center if the personal protector calls out “lucky,” or block the third man on the line from the center if he calls out “ringo.”
Once the play declared itself as a “ringo” call, I assiduously counted the third man out using my eyes as if they were an imaginary finger pointing to each guy. Details are extremely important in the NFL, and a single miscalculation could cost you your job.
When the ball was snapped, I shuffled back two small steps as my opponent ran towards me. I could see immediately his assignment was to block me rather than rush the punter. I quickly shifted duties, going from a blocker to a defender, and sidestepped to the right while trying to break around him and get into my designated pursuit lane.
While turning to run upfield, I could hear the loud boom of the ball being launched off the punter’s foot. As the ball hung in the air it swung right, landing cleanly in the returner’s hands near the sideline.
I had managed to beat my blocker and had a clean path to the punt returner.
That offseason, the Raiders had abruptly switched away from running a 3-4 system, which normally requires bigger, stronger linebackers as opposed to smaller, faster ones better suited for the 4-3 defensive schemes we had switched to. This essentially had me as a fish out of water just one season removed from being drafted specifically to play in a 3-4 defense.
Understanding this as the reality I was faced with, I knew I was going to have to prove a lot if I were to have any hope of making the team. I had to show I could compete against smaller, faster linebackers.
As I closed in on the ball-carrier, I distinctly recall my determination to perform well and impress the coaches. My feet were turning over as fast as they could. I didn’t just want to make the tackle; I wanted to make it memorable.
With the angle I was taking and knowing I had help to my left and the sideline to the right, I knew this was a great opportunity to land a big-time hit and make a lasting impression. What I failed to consider was the guy with the ball seemed to be thinking the same thing. We were two guys fighting for a job and willing to fully sacrifice our bodies in order to have our dream realized.
The size advantage was slanted heavily in my favor, and I wasn’t worried much about who the winner of this collision would be.
Just before I was within striking distance, the return man executed a stutter step, which was just effective enough to cause me to lose my balance. But for him it was too late; even though my fall was set in motion, I could see I was still going to make the tackle. I completed my fall into the ball-carrier by pushing off on the final step, further propelling me into his body.
The ball-carrier was fearless and had decided to run right into contact; his knee kicked upwards right into the left side of my helmet just as I was flying into him at a high velocity. My head and neck were smashed awkwardly into my right shoulder; a sudden and extremely sharp pain ran down my body. I also felt a small crunch in my neck and knew immediately this wasn’t good.
I did, however, make the tackle, and while lying there I had feeling in all my limbs and was able to get up without any problems. But the pain remained. It felt as if I had slipped a disc or knocked a vertebra out of whack to the point where it was making a clicking sound. If I moved it just right, it would send excruciating pain down my entire body. I tried several times to pop my neck or crack it back in line but to no avail.
At that moment, the first quarter had ended, and I was supposed to go into the game on defense. I couldn’t get myself to miss such an important opportunity, so I decided to suck it up and finish the game.
Surprisingly, I actually played pretty well and ended up being named defensive player of the game, which also meant I was the winner of our giant pool of money, accumulated throughout training camp from such fineable violations as falling asleep, dropping passes, jumping offside and various things of that nature. The total amount of the pool was about $2,000, which at the time felt like pocket change.
Despite finishing that game, I was left with an injured neck for the rest of preseason that never went away. It would irritate and worry me more than it was constantly painful, but if I moved it a certain way, I would get these horrible pains that could nearly floor me.
In fact, during pregame warm-ups the following week in the Metrodome against the Vikings, I was hit by one of those feelings while dropping back in a linebacker interception drill. I ended up cutting a dropback short and grabbing my neck in intense pain. The linebacker coach ended up asking me if I was OK; I said yes and shrugged it off.
I was released from the team just before the start of the regular season. I was devastated.
I never told my parents or anyone in the Raider organization about my neck injury. I desperately wanted to make the team and could ill afford to miss any time.
That single hit would end up haunting me for the rest of my football career; I was never the same after that play, a play that turned out to be more significant in determining my future than any other in my professional life. Even though it became less of a physical issue and more of a mental one as time went by, it still played a huge role in my performance on the field.
After having my neck nearly broken, it seemed as though I was beginning to understand and appreciate my own mortality. I knew then I would never play football longer than I had to. From then on I was a money player with marginal athletic ability, a combination that had only one outcome: failure.
Maybe if that play never happened, things would have turned out differently for my football career. Either way, I have no regrets about my experiences in the NFL and hope things have turned out as they have for a reason. Perhaps now I am exactly where I’m meant to be, doing exactly what I was meant to do, and for this reason, it was by far the most important play in my entire career.