Just Bag It: Why Chris Samuels Should Retire With His Head Held High

K. D. JamesCorrespondent IOctober 26, 2009

TAMPA, FL - NOVEMBER 25: Tackle Chris Samuels #60 of the Washington Redskins blocks against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Raymond James Stadium on November 25, 2007 in Tampa, Florida.  The Bucs won 19-13. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

Let me first notify those reacting to the headline with the following: I'm NOT knocking the massive (6'5", 314 lb.) man with the basso profundo , Southern drawl from Mobile, Alabama. NOT, OK?

Good. With that out of the way, let me say that if it weren't for  No. 60, Patrick Ramsey, Danny Wuerffel, Mark Brunell, Jason Campbell, Shaun Alexander, Ladell Betts and Clinton Portis would have been eating more turf, throwing for fewer completed passes and running for fewer first downs than ever from the 2000-2008 seasons. (I omitted the 2009 season, because he has only played in five games of a 16-game season; not a full season, one in which he is already hurt.)

In quite a significant yet thankless position, Samuels has had a high threshold for pain—little to no cartilage in one or both knees, back problems, a torn triceps muscle.

But who knew that one seemingly small issue (a stinger), on top of an ongoing bigger one (stenosis, the narrowing of the spinal cord), which beset him two Sundays ago in Charlotte against the Panthers, might force him to sadly wrap up an already solid career? (More on this later.)

He was a stalwart on a constantly changing offensive line, with Derrick Dockery, Jason Kendall, Casey Rabach, Randy Thomas, Stephon Heyer, D'Anthony Batiste, Chad Rhinehart, Mike Williams, Jason Fabini, Tre' Johnson being some of the linemates in his eight years as left tackle in Washington.

He has worked in victory (a few times in the playoffs, six Pro Bowls, playing for Joe Gibbs/Joe Bugel) and agony (Steve Spurrier's tenure; dealing with, as had other teammates, Sean Taylor's death).

But through good times and bad at home and on the road, you always felt a little bit at ease when you saw the Kind Giant, who reminds me so much of Michael Clark Duncan's character in The Green Mile  movie, respond to the press with such candor, professionalism and amazing equanimity.

Even when you knew no way in hell would the Redskins prevail after spankings on nationally televised games or get into the playoffs after losing three straight games, you'd hear Samuels say something to the effect of, "It's alright. We're not where we want to be, but I'll just put it in the Lord's hands. We could still make it to the playoffs."

I never knew how they were able to even reach the playoffs twice under Gibbs's second stint, but he was right! In fact, of the I-me-mine players on the latest roster, cats like Samuels and model-citizen linebacker London Fletcher would say things that you could never accept cum grano salo . More or less, their words seem to always remain genuine.

As National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell and other top officials continue to crack down on helmet-to-helmet hits, scofflaw pro teams (remember the idiots on Cincinnati Bengal teams, other than Chad Ochocinco, in years past?), and keeping quarterbacks upright and unscathed, my mind raced to something that the NFL cannot really prevent: the number of star NFL players whose careers ended by stingers.

I thought of Green Bay’s Sterling Sharpe, one of my favorite wide receivers. Dallas’ Michael Irvin, too, who lay still on the Veterans Stadium astroturf with many Philly fans jeering at him. And several others over the league's 89-year history, whose names I can't count or remember.

A stinger, according to Dr. Brian Supach, a neurospecialist at the Virginia Spine Institute in Reston, Virginia, is an injury that affects the brachial plexus nerves in the spinal cord, and occurs when the head or neck (cervical spine) is hit to one side. These peripheral nerves are located in the shoulders, and provide stability for muscles in the arms.

Once one is hit in the brachial plexus area, the nerves may be "compressed, stretched or irritated." An intense collision may cause immediate pain, with a tingling or "stinging" sensation from the neck down to the arm, hand(s) and/or fingers, lasting a short period of time to a longer period (Samuels’ case).

That trauma to the spinal cord along with stenosis, plus future potential nerve damage, will equal to paralysis, which could happen to Samuels if he were to ever suit up again for the Skins.

I like Chris Samuels a lot, and he has sacrificed his body in all 141 games played since 2000, including 73 straight as a starter. Always a professional and sensible guy, Samuels seems like he is taking the advice of the medicos seriously: He won't play again during the 2009 season. Yet as any competitively driven, stubborn, rich athlete would say, he's not ruling out playing again in the near future, as early as next season.

But with the neurological information presented above, if he returns and becomes paralyzed, what can he do then?

What could a franchise do other than remain helpless and in prayer, if on one Sunday or Monday, a menacing defensive end or blitzing linebacker, stuns Samuels with an axon-rupturing blow so crippling, that his whole big body just shuts down, leaving him motionless on a sodden field, with a paramedic having to stabilize his tree-trunk-sized neck in a brace?

If I were his adviser, I'd say, No, Chris. Don't do it. You are financially secure. You have your health, and I don't want to see you live the rest of your life in a wheelchair or with a halo. Walk away while you can. You've gone to the best neuro doctors in the country. And why are you so eager to return to a team struggling right now with annoying management, shaky head coaching and no able-bodied back-ups in the offensive line?

'Tis but a scratch, you say, a small problem fixed with a little shot, tablet or "scope" procedure (arthroscopic surgery) to get you back in pads and cleats quickquickquick, right? But if the second or third opinion, the fourth, is the same diagnosis as the first, then there's no need to come back, Chris.

Since Chris Samuels is also a God-fearing, Christian man, he should regard his current situation as a blessing. After protecting quarterbacks and running backs and weak-link buddies on the O line for eight-plus years, it's finally a time when he needed maximum protection—for himself. His spinal cord, with its myelinated cells, nodes of Ranvier and ability of saltatory conduction, needs protecting, so that he can still feel sensation from his head to toes years from now to lift up his kids, and grandkids thereafter.

Which is why I thank him for all that he has done for the franchise. I wish that he were like Harris Barton or Bubba Paris, Jonathan Ogden, Joe Jacoby or Russ Grimm, i.e. on a Super Bowl-winning team. He was unfortunate only in that feat, but remarkably successful in every other aspect on the field. I have recognized his efforts on and off the gridiron, and wish him well in his post-football endeavors.

Hey, maybe after Buges leaves the team, he could take over as a coach. Or with a great voice like his, we could even be seeing him in a booth or studio very soon.