Jerry Ball wanted somebody dead. He knew what had happened, he’d seen it a million 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 its 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 Sunday, that’s what it was out at the Silverdome, bloody mayhem. You might have sworn the building was on fire, 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. But it cost them dearly. They would lose one of their top two defensive players, most likely for the rest of the season.
And now Jerry Ball wanted revenge. Retribution. Satisfaction. Somebody dead. Something. The game was just about over now, and he had done something I had never seen before, he had planted himself on a folding chair in the tunnel where the players exit. He was in a gray sport 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 running back 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 Jet 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. Confrontation afterward 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 body lock with center Jim Sweeney. That’s supposed to be illegal. Nothing was called. Ball went down and knew his season was done.
Baxter saw Ball afterward and trotted right to him. Big mistake.
“Yo, I was just trying to block someone, baby, you know how it is, everybody got to block somebody, I was just doin’ 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—-d 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. In the middle, Ball spotted some green jackets, and across the way he saw Coslet. He couldn’t get to him, but he lifted a crutch in the air and he yelled, he yelled above the echoes and above the engine noise and above the screams and blaring music from the field. 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 the sea of his team. And he was gone. Injuries everywhere 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 managed to find both. You can circle Sunday on your calendars if you are a Detroit football fan, because it 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 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, yet managing to burn them for 114 yards.
This was injuries and more injuries, Ray Crockett carried off the field by four of his teammates, Bennie Blades carted off, Tracy Hayworth flat on the sidelines, as doctors worked on him. There was even a fan who fell from a railing. He was taken off on a stretcher.
“I haven’t seen so many stretchers in any game I’ve ever played in here,” Kevin Glover admitted, after the Lions held off the Jets, 34-20, in a furious, desperate and brutal 3 1/2- hour game. “We had to suck it up and win. And we did. We made a promise before this season. Don’t think playoffs when you’re out there. Don’t think record. Just think win.”
He looked around the room. Eric Sanders had his knee wrapped in ice and crutches under his arm. Jamison was hobbling, Chris Spielman was hobbling. Toby Caston pulled off his uniform and just stared out.
“That was the nastiest game I’ve played in since I was playing for the Houston Oilers. And we played some dirty football down there. . . .
“But what they did to Jerry was wrong, it was a cheap shot. And we had to come together for him.”
It seems that 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 exceed the material needed to come together.
Apparently not yet.
“Why did you stick around here?” Ball was asked after the game was over.
“You could have dressed and gone home. Was it just to yell at the Jets?”
Ball pushed down on his crutches and stared. “That’s not what it’s about,” he said. “I wanted to let them know what they did, yeah. But mostly I wanted to be with my teammates after this win. We’re in this together, you know. Wherever it goes.”
You can bang on it.