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McGahee knows too well: taking an NFL hit can be costly

Jan 20, 2009 5:00 PM
Burnt Offerings by Stan Bergstein |

As this is written, it is too early to tell if Willis McGahee, a running back for the Baltimore Ravens of the NFL, will play football again.

It is too early to tell if he will walk, or live, until more examination of the senseless neck injury he suffered. He could need neck fusion surgery if his cervical spine is damaged. And if it is not crushed, it is a miracle.

McGahee is 27, 6 feet tall, weighs 232 pounds, played his college football at Miami.

The Pittsburgh Steelers free safety, Ryan Clark, is 29, 5 feet 11 inches tall, weighs 205 pounds, and played for Louisiana State.

They have known one another for years, and last Sunday afternoon they met again.

Head to head, helmet to helmet, both running at top speed, in a horrendous crashing collision. McGahee, wide open, had caught a pass from the Ravens’ rookie star, Joe Flacco, and turned upfield in the clear.

Clark, rushing toward him as fast and powerfully as he could, lowered his shoulder for the impact, his helmet smashing into McGahee’s face mask and helmet.

I have watched football for longer than most people live, and have seen many of the classic hits of the game. Jack Tatum, the assassin, feared all over the league. Chuck Bednarik dismantling Frank Gifford. Clint Ingram of the Jacksonville Jaguars leveling Tom Brady of the Patriots. Chuckie Mullins, a defensive back from Mississippi, making a head-on hit that rendered him a quadriplegic and ultimately cost him his life.

I have never seen a hit as hard as McGahee took Sunday. His head snapped back almost to his spine from the immense impact.

Clark, who fell across McGahee’s body, lay briefly unconscious. He was helped up, with an obvious concussion, and walked to the Steelers’ bench with assistance.

McGahee did not move. And the huge home crowd in Heinz Field, screaming for their Steelers, stopped to take in the drama unfolding before them.

Fractures and dislocation of the neck can be produced in a laboratory with 150-foot-pounds of kinetic energy. A hit like McGahee took from Clark probably registered 1,500.

The National Football League and the NCAA know all this. They have posters up in dressing rooms around the country urging players to keep their heads up on hits, using their shoulders instead of their helmets.

The officials know it. Spearing and head butts, and using the helmet "to punish" another player, are illegal, and call for 15 yard penalties.

None was called Sunday. The TV voices, Jim Nance and Phil Simms, called it "a clean hit." It was no such thing. It was a clear violation, head-on helmet-to-helmet warfare, a crashing nightmare feared by all who play football.

The fear has a name – quadriplegia – and all who play the game at high levels know it.

The TV camera dwelt on hardened pros kneeling on the sidelines, heads down, hands on their foreheads, presumably praying for McGahee’s life. They saw the horrible crash close up and in full color, and it was frightening.

The physicists and physicians talk about these injuries in terms of "axial loading mechanism" and subluxation. MRIs are used to show fractures or other damage to the spinal cord. Severe damage can mean a man will never walk again. Lesser fractures or smashing injuries to the cervical spine can end careers.

We do not think Ryan Clark was intentionally trying to injure Willis McGahee. But we think that regardless of intent, his hit was foolhardy, part of the savagery that has become engrained in pro and even college football, and a part the public regards with excitement and even anticipation, like hockey fights and potential roof jumpers.

They will talk about Ryan Clark’s Sunday hit on Willis McGahee for years. Replays will fill your screen repeatedly. YouTube already has a video of "Hardest Hits from 2006 to 2008." Sunday’s crash is likely to lead the 2009 edition.

Whether or not Willis McGahee plays football again, or walks again, is another matter. He is rugged, big and strong, and has suffered serious NFL injuries before, but the human spine is not built to endure what his did in Pittsburgh last Sunday afternoon.

Pray for him.