It was the first kickoff of the first exhibition game. Matt Russell came charging down the field, planted a leg and felt a pop in his right knee.
He was done for the year.
Just like that? Just like that. He went through surgery. He went through rehab. He lifted weights for hours a day and stood on the Detroit Lions’ sidelines, holding a clipboard, while his friends played the game.
Sometimes, after practice, he would take the field in his street clothes and holler: “Hey, Coach! Check out my progress!” Then he would run a few steps and drop into pass coverage. The coach would nod at his determination.
The season ended. Russell went home.
The next summer, fully rehabbed, he had his family come to Atlanta to watch the first exhibition game. It was a momentous occasion. He was back on the field. Back playing the game he’d loved “since I was 5 years old.”
He lasted until the fourth quarter.
On another kick, a punt, he came charging down, planted his foot, and was about to tackle the runner when an opposing player plowed into him.
The other knee snapped.
“Before I even hit the ground,” he recalls, “I said to myself, ‘Oh man, this is worse than last year.’ “
Down again, but not out yet
It was worse than before. As he lay on the field, Russell reached for his leg bones and kneecap, but they weren’t where they were supposed to be.
Doctors ran out. Russell was carted away on a stretcher. The stadium was nearly empty — this being the fourth quarter of a meaningless exhibition — so there were no cheers. No salute.
He was done for the year. Again.
Just like that? Just like that.
This is the flip side of NFL football, the part they don’t tell you about. The senseless injuries in senseless exhibition games, games that are only on the schedule to pad the pockets of the owners and give TV a few more Sundays’ worth of ad time.
Matt Russell, a Lions linebacker who had a promising rookie season in 1997, underwent surgery. Again. Rehab. Again. Crutches, weights, ultrasound, painkillers, scar tissue. Again.
He made it back to his team before the season ended, but only as a visitor.
“Look, Matt,” his coach, Bobby Ross, said, pulling out a piece of paper. “This is my roster for next year. Your name is on it. We’ll give you every chance if you want to keep trying.”
Russell was encouraged. He went home to Colorado and continued the endless workouts.
This spring, he tried again.
The game is worth the pain
He didn’t make it. After every workout, he felt pain. He took arthritis medicine. It didn’t get better. He had the knee ‘scoped and cleaned out. It still didn’t improve.
He realized, finally, that he would no longer be able to play at this level. He was only 27, and he thought about arena football or the European league. But, he says: “Those were never my dream. My dream was the NFL.”
During a week off, he took a ride with his fiancee, Sonja. At one point, he turned to her and said, “I’m done.”
He told the team a few days later. He fought back tears, stood and said, “I know you are going to laugh at me, but . . .”
Then he said how much he’d loved football. He said what a privilege it had been to grow up dreaming of something and actually achieve it — even for a little while. He told his teammates, “Relish every snap you get, because everyone says, ‘It’ll never happen to me,’ but . . .”
He paused. “It happened to me.”
Matt Russell’s 3-year NFL career reads this way: One real season. Two exhibition games. Two season-ending injuries. Retired.
Years from now, he will need a new knee. It may creak when he walks, and cold, rainy mornings will give him pain he wouldn’t wish on anyone.
“I know all that,” he says, “and you know what? I wouldn’t change it — even at the expense of my knees.”
Today is the first day of the new NFL season. And no doubt you will hear all about the players who play this game because they love it.
You won’t hear about the ones who can’t play anymore — because they loved it so much. But they are part of this sport, as much as the grass and the dirt and the ball. And they should never be forgotten.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).