During a freshman football game on a very cold November morning in 1961 up in Williamstown, Ma., I was hammered just as I received a pass over the middle.
For nearly 50 years, I was extremely pleased with myself for holding onto the ball when the defensive halfback from Williams dropped me with that hard tackle. I like to say—too often for my sons, who had no interest in playing the game—that I never dropped one that I got my hands on during my brief college football "career."
But as I read the responses of some of pro football's defensive so-called tough guys to the NFL's proposal to prevent/punish flagrant hits on defenseless players, I realize I've been wrong for all of those years.
I should not be pleased with myself for holding onto the ball, but rather, eternally grateful to that unnamed DB. It was his choice, after all, in that moment of intense physical competition, that he did not wish me to end up in a wheelchair for the rest of my days or, at worst, to not be here at all on this beautiful day in Central New Jersey in 2011, looking forward to working in my garden or to getting ready to watch the Red Sox on TV.
If he intended to hurt me, that is, the opportunity was there for the taking, and there was little I could have done about it. I was one of those "defenseless players" the NFL is talking about. He chose to make a tackle, not make an invalid.
I won't name the prominent defenders who are most vocal about their displeasure with the NFL's proposals, but it is clear they are not interested in only playing football. They are intent on something else; on hitting someone as hard as they can whether that person knows the blow is coming or not. I do not see why, in their world, the rules should not be changed to allow blocking from behind or clipping below the waist or any kind of surprise attack.
I call this street-corner thuggery, since there is very little difference between a person who commits violent acts against a defenseless person on a football field and someone who comes up behind an elderly woman on the street and throws her to the ground as he steals her purse.
If I can club you in the head while you are not looking, well, what is that, exactly? Is it, or should it be, a football act? Or is it what it would be called anywhere else in society, a criminal act, an intent to harm?
Players who hit above the shoulders, who drive their helmets into the backs of others or who seize the opportunity to pound an unsuspecting opponent should not just be penalized money or games, from my point of view. They should not be allowed to play.
We can only hope that the NFL will achieve some new rules to punish those who head-hunt, who clearly have horrible intentions in their heart, but that is not yet known.
What is known is that I wish only good things to that long-ago defensive back from Williams College. He could have hurt me or maimed me, and altered my life forever, but he chose not to.
I hope he remains today, as he left me then: healthy and whole.