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Scare with Fair reminds us of football's risks
By Bryan Burwell
Of the Post-Dispatch
Monday, Aug. 29 2005
To anyone who was ever brave enough or foolish enough to step on a football
field, this was another sobering reminder of the shivering contrasts of
football's artistic savagery. This was that disturbing reminder of how this
gladiator sport constantly dances along that edge between its beauty and its
In the blink of an eye, Detroit Lions tailback Kevin Jones was slashing across
the artificial turf at Ford Field on Monday night. This was the beauty of a
fast and flashy athlete darting through heavy traffic. As Jones hit the edge of
the line of scrimmage, the only man standing in his path was Rams cornerback
Terry Fair, who coiled his body into a tight compression chamber and prepared
to unleash himself like a projectile square into Jones' chest.
But something went wrong.
Fair lowered his head for a dangerous split second, and when his helmet slammed
into Jones, Fair's neck jolted back violently. It was the worst sort of image
that can happen on a football field, one that I've seen and experienced too
Fair's body went limp and he dropped to the ground like a heavy bag of grain.
This was one of those unsettling moments that jolts you into remembering just
how dangerous this game can be. Every once in a while, it can go all wrong when
all these ultra-fast, ultra-strong, ultra-large men in all this heavy body
armor slam into each other at speeds mimicking a head-on auto wreck.
Fair was lucky. His body only experienced a few nervous moments of paralysis in
the first half of the Rams' preseason game against the Lions. Thankfully, he
only suffered a sprained neck, not permanent paralysis. By the time he was
riding in that ambulance to a downtown Detroit hospital, the movement had
returned to his legs, which only moments earlier had shivered and spasmed
uncontrollably beneath him.
When they wheeled Fair off the field in a golf cart, his body was tightly
strapped to keep him immobile. But he still managed to lift up his right arm,
raise his right hand in the air and give a "thumbs up" sign to the crowd in
Ford Field. For me, and no doubt thousands of long-time Lions fans, that scene
was so eerily similar to another scene we all witnessed at another Lions-Rams
game nearly 14 years earlier.
It was Nov. 17, 1991. The game was in the old Pontiac Silverdome, when the Los
Angeles Rams faced the Lions in the 11th game of the regular season, and
Detroit offensive tackle Mike Utley suffered a paralyzing neck injury. As Utley
was wheeled off the field he too flashed a "thumbs up" sign that turned into
the rallying cry for the Lions, who became the surprise team of that NFL
season, reaching the NFC championship game.
Utley was not so lucky as Fair. He never played another down of football and
was permanently paralyzed from the waist down and is still in a wheelchair.
Every time football players walk onto a playing field, they all quietly make
peace with the disquieting potential consequences of their profession, and so
do those of us who love football's artistic savagery.
These are the contrasts that make the game so popular and so dangerous. The
sight of some liquid tailback eluding a tackle is a thing of beauty. We marvel
at the exquisite artistry of the sweet running back. But the biggest shiver
that resonates through a stadium always is the big hit.
That big hit can end a season in a flash. A blown knee can come in the blink of
an eye. Careers can be ruined with the snap of the ball. Sometimes, even worse
things happen that alter lives forever.
"Football is a bad game played by bad people," former Colts defensive tackle
Randy Barnes told me a long time ago. "But those of us who play it know that.
It's our choice. It's our life. We know and accept the consequences. And if you
can't accept how mean and nasty and harmful this game can be, then you don't
have any business in our game."