CONYERS, Ga. — Chad Frazier has seen it hundreds of times: Two guys run into each other at full speed, and one of them doesn’t get up right away.
The crowd falls silent. The other players drop to a knee, whispering a prayer and trying to shake the very sobering reality that it could be any of them stretched out on the ground. Everyone strains their eyes, hoping to glimpse even the tiniest sign of movement.
As the head football coach at Heritage High School in suburban Atlanta, Frazier knows most players eventually get up. Still, he always frets that one won’t.
“Every time there’s a collision and one of my kids falls to the ground, the worst goes through my mind,” Frazier said. “It may only be his pride is hurt because he just got whipped. But if they don’t move right away, the worst goes through my mind.”
That worst-case scenario played out in Buffalo last weekend. Kevin Everett charged in to make a tackle on a kickoff return, but he appeared to duck his head a split-second before making contact, leaving himself with a catastrophic spinal-cord injury.
At first, doctors feared the Bills tight end would never walk again. In fact, his very life was in danger. In the following days, Everett showed encouraging signs of movement, improving the odds that he’ll live something of a normal life, even though his football career is surely over.
Whatever the outcome, Everett’s case demonstrates the enormous risks that all football players face, especially when they give in to the natural tendency to look down just before a collision.
Think of it this way: What would a motorist instinctively do when his car is about to run into something? Duck, of course. But that’s the worst mistake a football player can make.
“It’s a technique that is not easily mastered, and it’s very easily done wrong,” said Pierson Prioleau, a ninth-year safety with the Washington Redskins. “And, trust me, when you turn the game film on, 90 percent of the time you’re going to see it done wrong. But 99.9 percent of the time, nobody has to pay for it injury wise.”
When someone does, the price can be enormously high.
Last year alone, the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research logged 10 spinal-cord cases on the gridiron. Since 1977, at least 269 sandlot, high school, college and pro players have gone down with that most feared of injuries, the group reports.
Marc Buoniconti, son of NFL Hall of Famer Nick Buoniconti, has been paralyzed from the neck down since making a tackle for The Citadel in 1985. He and his father now work closely with the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, one of the world’s top neurological research centers.
“It was ironic in a way,” the younger Buoniconti said. “Football gave us our greatest joy and our worst sorrow.”
Although no one can eliminate the risk of life-changing injuries in such a violent sport, football has taken steps to reduce the chances. There are now strict rules against “spearing” — diving into another player with the top of the helmet. A couple of years ago, the NCAA outlawed all helmet-to-helmet contact, intentional or not.
Ron Courson, the head athletic trainer at the University of Georgia, led the effort.
“Heads up — that’s the key,” said Courson, who helped develop a 14-minute video with that same title, “Heads Up,” to spread the message through all levels of football. “If you can see what you hit, you’re not going to rule out every injury, but you’re going to be significantly safer.”
Research started in the early 1970s, when it wasn’t uncommon for more than 30 players a year to sustain paralyzing injuries. Dr. Joseph Torg of Temple University led a groundbreaking study that found most of the devastating injuries occurred when a tackler made initial contact with the top of his helmet.
“The neck has a normal curvature in it. That’s important, because it allows some shock absorbency in the neck,” Courson explained. “But when you initiate contact with the top of your head, you have to bend your neck down. The spine becomes straight and doesn’t have the ability to absorb the shock as well.”
Those risks are even greater in today’s game, with bigger, faster, stronger players creating ever more violent collisions.
“When you have a 200-pound defensive player running into a 200-pound offensive player at a high rate of speed, that’s a significant collision,” Courson said. “When you stop very suddenly, the deceleration force goes through the spine. Something has to give.”
The most serious cases result in a “burst fracture” of the vertebrae, which sends small fragments of bone flying into the spinal column. Paralysis is often the result, though it varies from case to case how much of the body is affected and whether the victim is left permanently disabled.
Everett might be one of the lucky ones, though Buoniconti disputed those who call it a miracle. He pointed to the quick care Everett received from medical personnel at the stadium, along with advances such as “hypothermia therapy” that were developed by the Miami Project and other programs.
The Bills player’s body was flushed with cold fluids to lower his temperature, a process that reduces the inflammation around the spinal column. Basically, it’s a much more advanced version of a player putting ice on a sore knee.
“That has been a real shot in the arm for our research,” Buoniconti said. “Now we have to continue to work to allow people all over this country, all over the world, to utilize it like Kevin did. It should be protocol for anyone who has a spinal-cord injury.”
The NFL’s charitable wing donates $1.5 million a year for medical research but has gradually shifted away from spinal-cord projects. “We’ve been focusing most of that in recent years on concussion-related research,” league spokesman Greg Aiello said.
Others are trying to prevent this sort of injury from happening in the first place.
USA Football, charged with growing the sport at the grass-roots level, holds coaching clinics around the country and provides online teaching tools that show the benefits of proper technique, especially when it comes to the two most basic fundaments: blocking and tackling.
Of course, most youth coaches are volunteers, usually adults who have kids on the team or love to watch football on the weekends. Many times, they don’t know the best and latest drills. They might figure the best way to teach a youngster to tackle (and rid him of his natural fear and hesitancy) is to send him charging at another player from several feet away.
Not so, said Scott Hallenbeck, the executive director of USA Football.
“You should start with the kids inches apart. They should be banging facemasks,” he said. “Then they should go shoulder pads to shoulder pads. You slowly move them back, just inches at first, then a few feet. But they should never be more than a few feet apart.”
Some leagues do it right. Some don’t.
Frazier, who’s been coaching at the high school level for 10 years, sees a huge disparity by the time those players get to him.
“You can tell the ones who have played and been taught to do it the right way. They do a good job of keeping their hips low, their knees bent and their heads up,” he said. “The ones who haven’t played or haven’t been taught, they have a tendency is to duck their head.”
Even the NFL’s best players struggle to maintain the form that is drilled into their heads every day by the coaches, but just doesn’t feel right once they get on the field.
“That’s the hard part about tackling, man,” Washington Redskins linebacker Randall Godfrey said. “You try to use perfect form. We teach it every day. We go through it. But when you’re on special teams, you’re running down there on kickoffs and things are going wide open, it’s hard to control how you place your head and make a tackle.”
Everett was hurt on a kickoff return, when the risks are amplified by the fact that both teams have more room to run at each other.
Georgia coach Mark Richt was troubled by the NCAA’s decision to move back kickoffs this year to the 30-yard line — which the NFL already used — in hopes of creating more returns than touchbacks.
“I don’t necessarily dislike the kickoff. I just know it’s a dangerous play,” Richt said. “It’s exciting. If I was a fan, I would love it. But as a coach, I see how hard these guys run into each other. I just worry about those guys.”
Even with the increased emphasis on safety and improved equipment, there hasn’t been the sort of decline in catastrophic injuries that one might expect, according to the national research center.
In fact, after reporting single-digit case numbers for all but one year from 1991-2002, there have been at least 10 spinal cord injuries in three of the last four years (the exception was 2005, with only three cases).
Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis blames a breakdown in teaching methods all along the football pipeline.
“Young kids don’t go out and play football in the street anymore,” he said. “Colleges can’t spend as much time with their guys on the field. Their spring football is limited, how much contact and so forth. So it becomes a game of non-contact until you have contact. With that, we’re going to continually see more instances of guys injured like (Everett).”
Prioleau, the Redskins safety, said at least two times every game he gets up from a tackle with his neck stinging — and has to remind himself to use proper technique the next time.
“You’re like ’whew,’ but it happens all the time and you never really think about it,” he said. “You know it’s part of the game. It’s why you say your prayers before the game, you say them after the game, and you continue to play.”
AP Sports Writers Joseph White in Washington and Joe Kay in Cincinnati contributed to this report.
On the Web:
The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis: www.themiamiproject.org
USA Football: www.usafootball.com
National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research: www.unc.edu/depts/nccsi