Jerry Ball wanted somebody dead. He knew what had happened. He’d seen it a thousand times. Only this time it had happened to him, this nasty football trick: One guy holds you up, the other chops you low. And now it was his knee that was throbbing and his turn to sit on the motorized cart that would drive him off the field and into his street clothes, and, damn it, he wanted no part of this. Better a crane should lift him through the roof than to ride off like some wounded soldier in front of the enemy with their cheap trick garbage. Helpless, he turned like a caged beast, maddened with this sudden inability to run or to even kick somebody, and he banged a fist down on the back of the cart and I swear you could hear it reverberate in the upper deck.
That was a call to arms, a declaration of war, and for the next three hours, that’s what it was out at the Silverdome on Sunday — bloody mayhem. You would have sworn the building was under siege: so much noise, so many stretchers, so many injured and hobbling. There were cramped muscles and twisted knees and the kind of vicious hits that, were this a musical, would be underscored by cymbal crashes. Sacks. Fumbles. Players disconnected from the ball and then their senses. In the end, when the bombs stopped falling, the Lions would learn the meaning of character — just as they would likely gain entry to the promised land, the playoffs. But it cost them. They lost one of their top two defensive players, most likely for the rest of the season.
And now Jerry Ball wanted revenge. Satisfaction. Somebody dead. Something. The game was just about over, and he was doing something I have never seen done before: planting himself on a folding chair in the tunnel where the players exit. He was in a gray sports coat and black shirt, his new crutches by his side, even as photographers and reporters raced back and forth. He glared down the tunnel as the players began to trickle in.
“You waiting for (Brad) Baxter?” someone asked, referring to the fullback who had chopped Ball at the knees in the first quarter.
“I ain’t waiting for Baxter,” he barked. “I want Coslet.”
Bruce Coslet is the coach of the Jets.
“Damn chop block,” he said. “Completely illegal. They know it.”
The first Jets player to pass him was cornerback James Hasty.
“You all right, big fella?” Hasty said, from under his helmet.
Ball sneered. “Yeah, I’m . . . nah, I ain’t all right.”
He didn’t even look at the guy.
Hasty moved on. The final showdown
More players converged in the tunnel, their cleats clomping on the concrete floor. Jets defensive tackle Bill Pickel spotted Ball, and came over.
“Hey, you OK?”
Ball glared. Pickel moved on.
Now came Baxter, the guy whose helmet went right into Ball’s knee on that second-and-five play in the first quarter — a play in which Ball was completely engaged in a standing block with center Jim Sweeney. That’s supposed to be illegal, going for a guy’s knees when he’s engaged at the arms.
Nothing was called. Ball went down. He knew his season was done.
Baxter saw Ball and trotted right to him. Big mistake.
“Yo,” Baxter mumbled, “I was just trying to block someone baby, you know how it is, everybody got to block somebody, I was just doing my job . . . “
“Hey,” Ball snarled, leaning into him. “That was a f— up play. You know it.”
“I was just trying to block.”
“That was f—— up.”
“Let’s go over here and talk, man.”
“I can’t walk!” Ball yelled.
Baxter slid away into the crowd of players.
“Where’s Coslet at?” Ball said. By now the crowd was thick, players, cheerleaders, referees, cart drivers. Ball spotted some green jackets, and across the way he saw Coslet moving quickly. He couldn’t get to him, so he lifted a crutch in the air and yelled — he yelled above the cleats and above the engine noise and above the field music and there was no mistaking the voice of Jerry Ball, a big man cut down.
“YO!” he screamed after Coslet. “IT WASN’T WORTH IT! ‘CAUSE YOU STILL GOT YOUR A– KICKED!”
Coslet looked over his shoulder, then turned away and was swallowed by crowd. And he was gone. How many more can fall?
In the end, that will be all the retribution coming to Jerry Ball this season — that, and the fact that his team, which for so many years had lacked a winning instinct, much less a killer instinct, now has managed to find both. Listen up, Detroit football fans: You can circle Sunday on your calendars, because this was the day the Lions learned just how tough they have become:
This was George Jamison making a crushing sack on third- and-one, and Dan Owens making a crushing sack on third-and- two, and Melvin Jenkins making a crushing sack that separated Jets quarterback Ken O’Brien from the ball. This was William White slamming so hard into running back Freeman McNeil you could hear his bones rattle. This was Barry Sanders being treated like a dish rag, thrown into the Jets’ sideline whenever they got a chance, quite often late
— no penalty flags again — yet managing to burn them for 114 yards rushing.
This was injuries and more injuries: Ray Crockett being carried off the field by four of his teammates; Bennie Blades being carted off; Tracy Hayworth lying flat on the sideline, as doctors worked on him. There was even a fan, trying to streak, who fell from the railing. He was taken off on a stretcher.
“I haven’t seen so many stretchers in any game I’ve ever played here,” Kevin Glover admitted, after the Lions held off the Jets, 34-20, in that furious, desperate and brutal three- and-a-half hour war. “We had to suck it up and win. And we did.”
He looked around the room. Eric Sanders had his knee wrapped in ice and crutches under his arm. Jamison was hobbling, Chris Speilman was hobbling. Toby Caston pulled off his uniform and just stared out.
“What they did to Jerry was wrong,” Caston said. “It was a cheap shot. And we had to come together for him.”
It seems this team is doing that every week, doesn’t it? Coming together for a fallen Rodney Peete, for a fallen Mike Cofer, for a fallen Mike Utley, now for a fallen Jerry Ball. You wonder at what point the fallen exceeds the material needed to come together.
Apparently not yet. The Lions are 10-4, they are going to the playoffs almost certainly. And there they will need all the lessons they learned Sunday, because in the playoffs, everyone plays like this, tooth-and-nail — using their teeth and nails if they must.
So be it. Football is brutal. But it shouldn’t be cheap. The Lions lost their biggest defensive threat Sunday, on a play that shouldn’t be allowed. The referees went deaf and dumb. The Jets got away with murder. All Ball got to do was yell as the enemy slipped away.
“I promise you this,” Ball said afterward, pressing down on his crutches and speaking loud enough for his teammates to hear. “If we ever play those guys again, I’m gonna be haunting them in their dreams.”
You can bang on that.