It was a horrific scene, no doubt. A young athlete just getting started on a promising NFL career, seemingly the personification of fitness and health, popping up from a rather innocuous-looking tackle — and then slumping back to the turf.
Just like that, fighting for his life.
Naturally, when a traumatic event happens like the one that stopped Damar Hamlin’s heart — not once, but twice — and left him in critical condition, we’re roused to ponder the value of a sport.
Especially a violent one such as football, which has turned many a man’s brain to mush and left so many bodies maimed and broken.
Some parents won’t let their children play football anymore. Some fans say they can no longer bear to watch the physical toll these modern-day gladiators put themselves through for our enjoyment.
Both sentiments are understandable. There are plenty of other sports that kids can play. There are plenty of other ways to enjoy a Sunday afternoon in the fall that don’t require watching the carnage of the NFL.
But anyone who suggests this is a precarious moment for America’s No. 1 sport, that somehow we’ve crossed a Rubicon leading to its slow, inevitable downfall, simply hasn’t been paying attention.
Tragedy and death are a part of all sports, as intertwined with the games we play and cheer for as life itself.
There is nothing to suggest this time will be any different.
The NFL already has endured massive criticism for doing its best to ignore the awful toll of repeated concussions, its protocols called into question again this season, yet hasn’t seen its popularity wane in the the least.
Football’s hold on America is strong indeed.
When a new weekend arrives, the masses will be back in the stadiums or plopped down in front of their giant TVs — cheering on their favorite teams, barking at those who make a mistake, breaking down potential playoff matchups, incessantly checking on point spreads and parlays and fantasy rosters.
The risks were calculated long ago and determined by the vast majority to be worth it.
“I don’t know how you avoid it,” President Joe Biden said Wednesday. “I think working like hell on the helmets and the concussion protocols, that all makes a lot of sense. But it’s, you know, it is dangerous. You’ve got to just acknowledge it.”
Ignoring the potential peril is built into a football player’s DNA. Consider Devon Gales, a former college football player who was paralyzed in a 2015 game.
His love for the gridiron hasn’t waned at all. If anything, it’s gotten stronger. If he could get up from his wheelchair, he would run back out there without hesitation.
“I want to hit somebody. Or give me the ball. I’ll roll to the touchdown,” Gales said during a recent interview, breaking into a big smile.
Any discussion about football’s future is sure to be brushed aside quickly by most fans. The only real hope is that Hamlin’s plight will make those of us on the outside more empathetic to the players of this savage game — a worthy goal, for sure — but even that sentiment figures to fade in short order.
Fumbles must be booed. Interceptions must be heckled. First-round busts must be taken to task.
“I’ve gotten up here and I’ve talked about how these young men deserve everything they’ve got,” New York Jets coach Robert Saleh said. “We know what they do every day. We know how hard it is to play this game. And it’s not just playing the game of football, it’s all the preparation and how much their bodies hurt, every day.”
Roughly five decades ago, just as the NFL was establishing itself as America’s new national pastime, a diminutive Detroit receiver named Chuck Hughes collapsed on the field while trotting back to the huddle in the closing minutes of a game between the Lions and the Chicago Bears.
Many thought he was dead as soon as he hit the turf, though that wouldn’t be made official until he arrived at a nearby hospital and all efforts to revive him had proven unsuccessful. Turns out, he was suffering from major heart disease that had gone undetected. He was only 28 and remains the lone player to die in an NFL game.
Even in that era before the internet and social media and Red Zone, Hughes’ death was a jarring event that sent an entire nation into mourning. President Richard Nixon even sent a letter of condolences to the player’s widow.
“Never, ever in the wildest moments would you ever believe a thing like this could happen,” Lions owner William Clay Ford would tell the Detroit Free Press as he choked back tears. “It’s just inconceivable.”
But Hughes’ death did nothing to slow the NFL’s enormous growth. And while Ford’s words are just as applicable today when talking about Hamlin’s fight to survive, the grim truth is that things like this do happen, across all sports.
Not that often, thankfully.
But enough to remind us of the fragility of life.
Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman was killed by a pitch to the head. Bill Masterton of the NHL’s Minnesota North Stars died from a hit on the ice. Hank Gathers and Reggie Lewis collapsed on the basketball court. Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes was doomed by a freak bouncer that caught him in the neck.
Several cyclists have perished while tackling the Tour de France. Countless race car drivers — including mammoth stars such as Ayrton Senna and Dale Earnhardt — have lost their lives in high-speed crashes. Boxing has extracted a horrific toll from those who step in the ring.
Death has even come to those in the stands. Thirteen-year-old Brittanie Cecil was killed by a deflected puck that struck her in the temple while she was watching a Columbus Blue Jackets NHL game in 2002.
Each sport stopped for a moment to grieve after those unthinkable tragedies, some of which even led to much-needed safety improvements such as protective netting going up behind the net in all NHL arenas.
Then the games went on.
They always do.
Paul Newberry is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org
AP Sports Writers Dennis Waszak Jr. in New York and Steve Megargee in Milwaukee contributed.
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