A Scarlet Knightmare and What Football Can No Longer Glorify

Michael Ielpi@ielpiCorrespondent IOctober 21, 2010

What should have been a terrific fall weekend for football for Rutgers University turned into any football’s team worst nightmare. In the game I attended, the Scarlet Knights were playing their first ever game in the New Meadowlands Stadium. The University was receiving $2.7 million to play the game in East Rutherford.

Rutgers had many of its former athletes playing head-to-head on Sunday and Monday in the NFL. The Ravens-Patriots game would feature Ray Rice and Devin McCourty. The Monday night game had four Scarlet Knights in the lineup with Kenny Britt and Jason McCourty playing for the Titans and Tiquan Underwood and Courtney Greene suiting up for the Jaguars. The game was played in windy conditions on clear day and in a brand new bland New Meadowlands Stadium.

Rutgers defeated Army 23-20 in overtime, and it may have been the hollowest victory for the school in its 141-year history of playing college football.

Not only because of Rutgers’ poor play on its offensive line or its comeback from 14 points down in the fourth quarter, but because of a kick return in the fourth quarter that brought the 40,000 fans to complete silence.

Eric LeGrand did exactly what he was supposed to do on the kickoff; he ran down the field and made the open-field tackle. Any coach would laud the way he hit the Army player.

There was just one thing wrong; his body fell to the ground and his vertebrae had been fractured.

Eric LeGrand’s football career ended on Saturday, October 16, 2010. We all sit and wait to hear what we hope will be good news and that his paralysis is only temporary.

On Sunday, the NFL put on an expose of the dangers of hits to the head. I know there has been plenty of talk of this issue not only this week but over the past few decades, but the speed and the strength of the players playing the game of football has pretty much reached warp speed.

The longer you play the game of football, the longer you realize what the game is all about underneath the surface. It is about survival. It is about waking up the next morning and your ankles being sore, your knees not willing to bend all the way, your hips burning, your back tight, your shoulders so sore you cannot even lift them over your head. That is what the game does to you over a period of time. It carves up your body like a knife through a fine steak.

The west-coast offense that most teams run has increased the danger by putting small wide receivers running over the middle, and that middle of the field is now a hunting ground for stronger safeties and linebackers to meet them head on and a collision is almost unavoidable.

The NFL and television had glorified these hits for far too long. The fact that the league can honestly talk about an 18-game schedule is absurd. It may be time to go back to a 14-game schedule. How many men would avoid getting serious injuries if the league took away two games?

Personally, I have had three concussions in my life. The most severe one came when I did not know where I was. It was a frightening experience. I was playing goalie in a floor hockey game and I went to cover the puck, and the opposing player went to try to pry the puck away from me with his stick, but his stick swung high and hit me in the helmet where my helmet would crack, and the blade of the stick caught me square on the top of my head. I blacked out.

I do not know how long I was out for; friends say it was about two minutes. I remember opening my eyes and the rest of my body would not move. I remember my right index finger tapping the ground. My other fingers began to follow suit, and then my legs started to move again. I was able to pick myself up with the help of two others. I was dizzy, and it was said that I yelled "Don’t take me out of the game!"

My friends told me the game had been moved and we had to drive to the new rink. That ride to the new rink was in the back of an ambulance. The doctor examined me and let me know that I suffered a concussion. I was able to pass the tests and my memory had returned to normal.

I was lucky, and I am glad no one has the replay.

I do not know the answer to reducing concussions and spinal cord injuries, but so much more needs to be done, or there may be just as many ambulances on the field as there are players. Negating helmet-to-helmet hits are a start, but there is so much more that needs to be done. The best comparison that is going through my head is NASCAR.

NASCAR has made changes to the safety of its sport to proliferate the growth of the sport and to truly take it from the dirt to the mainstream market. NASCAR has something they call restrictor plate racing. Restrictor plate races can be seen at the two superspeedways in NASCAR, Daytona and Talladega.

A restrictor plate reduces the power of a motor from approximately 750 horsepower to approximately 430 horsepower. Without the restrictor plate, a stock car could reach speeds of 230 MPH. According to experts, that 40 MPH increase in speed pretty much puts the car completely out of control.

NASCAR could not survive if drivers were getting carried off or dying in accidents on a weekly basis.

Regarding head injuries, NASCAR has never been the same since Dale Earnhardt left us in 2001. He was one of the last of a generation of guys who drove more on guts than they did the technical aspects of their car. The fans loved it, drivers were intimated by it, and safety officials did not want to see it. NASCAR has not had to deal with a death on the track since 2001.

Almost 1,000 Sprint Cup races have been run, and all of those drivers have made it home. Other safety measures such as roll cages, roof flaps, Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) barrier, higher fences and the HANS (Head and Neck Support) device have played a large factor in more drivers walking away from crashes.

Earnhardt once said that the HANS device felt like a noose. Doctors said there was a very good chance that had he worn the device, he would have survived the crash in Daytona.

After Earnhardt’s death, NASCAR made wearing the HANS device mandatory, and no one has said it was like a noose. I believe that a HANS device should be available to all drivers in any car. The wrecks are still there. They are still scary and they still can be fatal. You cannot go into any type of vehicle and be guaranteed of being 100 percent accident free.

Sometimes you have to compromise a little bit of the sport in order to keep it from being a bloodsport. Mixed Martial Arts now has weight classes, rounds, and other rules that turned around what some called, “human cockfighting” into a legitimate athletic contest.

In 2009, David Wright suffered a concussion after being in the head from a fastball pitched by Giants’ pitcher Matt Cain. After returning from the disabled list, Wright came back in to the batter’s box with the Rawlings S100 helmet. The helmet is designed to better protect your head against being hit in the head from a fastball.

You would have thought that the media would have taken well to Wright standing up for himself and wearing something that not only would be able to prolong his career. Instead, people made fun of the helmet and said it made David Wright look like The Great Gazoo from the Flinstones, or that it could be seen from Google Earth. Wright would later say that he found the helmet to be uncomfortable and went back to the traditional one.

It would be hard not to say that he may have caved in due to pressure from the outside.

Maybe the NFL is waiting for a superstar to be brutally injured. I am hoping it does not have to be that way.

The goal is not to reduce the contact, but to reduce the severity of the contact.

Most of us remember the scene in Jerry Maguire when Jerry has to do his agent duty and visit his client, a hockey player who has suffered a concussion. The hockey player’s son says to Jerry, ''Mr. Maguire, this is his fourth concussion. Shouldn't somebody get him to stop?''

Jerry talks to the boy and tries to play it off like his dad is a superhero that cannot be stopped by anyone. The son flips him off and the next morning, the carefree sports agent grows a conscience.

Maybe the events over the past weekend in football will force more fans, players and administrators to grow a conscience. We just want to see these athletes walk away from the wrecks, just like we see in NASCAR.

One day I hope to see Eric LeGrand walk again.