by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Maybe you see God. Maybe that’s the sensation football players whisper about, after a crunching hit coughs the life from their bodies and they collapse like puppets into the turf. Maybe it’s a religious thing, the gates of heaven swinging open, your maker taking a fleeting look, ready to call you home.

But only for a moment. Then, there is nothing. You say “fingers, move” but your fingers will not move. You say “legs, rise” but your legs are stiff as wood. The gates have swung closed and you are still on the field, and macho is replaced by fear, tears, a cry for help. “Oh, please,” you pray, “not me, please . . .” You lay there, weak as paper, as the paramedics rush out with the stretcher.

Tim McKyer was facedown on the Astroturf of the Minneapolis Metrodome last Sunday, going through all of this. No legs. No toes. No feeling. The doctors were poking him up and down his calves and thighs.

“Tim, can you feel this? . . .”

He thought about his mother, watching in Port Arthur, Texas, where football is religion and they avoid talk of moments like this. He thought about his wife, Fontella, whom he married several years ago. They had no kids.

We should have had kids, he thought.

“Don’t move him!” the doctors kept saying. “Everybody back!” McKyer, a cornerback, was still flat, just the way he’d landed after the Vikings’ Robert Smith smacked a knee into his head. The impact was so great that Smith flipped over. But Smith got up. McKyer, crumpled, could see only dark green carpet now. A distant buzz of stadium noise seeped into his helmet. How strange. All these doctors, unstrapping the spine board, barking orders, “Get ready to roll him . . . one . . . two . . .” And meanwhile, to fill the break, cheerleaders danced, and rock music blasted from loudspeakers, like a carnival. Ready for more

The game goes on. No surprise. This is not grade school, where you walk the injured kid back to his house, and his mother comes running out the door. Before the ambulance doors were closed, football had resumed at the Metrodome. At the hospital, McKyer asked to see the final minute on a TV set. They rolled him around, and when the Lions scored the winning touchdown he mumbled, “They did it. All right.” He was immobile at the time.

No surprise. Neither is the fact that McKyer, who thankfully regained all feeling in his body — bad concussion, they said — still stayed at that Minneapolis hospital two days, for tests on his spine and brain.

Here is the surprise: On Wednesday, McKyer was back in Detroit, at practice. On Thursday, he was there as well. And while he did not take part in drills, today, if he feels up to it, he may play against Tampa Bay.

And this is unbelievable.

If one of us — a nonprofessional athlete — took a blow that left us temporarily disconnected from our body, we would not be back next week for more. We might not be back next year.

“I’m ready if they let me,” McKyer said Thursday, stretching gingerly in the Silverdome. “The doctors said I’m OK.”

“Aren’t you worried?” he was asked.

“You can’t think about getting hurt. That’s when you get hurt.”

That is a very brave sports cliche.

It’s a lie. Injuries are a constant

Mike Utley was not thinking about getting hurt when he landed on his head that day against the Rams. Neither was Dennis Byrd when he broke his neck last year. Chucky Mullins, from Mississippi, was not thinking hurt when he made the brutal hit that left him paralyzed for life. Darryl Stingley was not thinking hurt when he flew across the middle and landed in a wheelchair.

Football is like dropping bodies from a second-floor window and hoping they land on a mattress. You needn’t think about injury; it will happen. Knees will be destroyed. Shoulders will be ripped from sockets. Perfectly healthy young men will ensure, each week, their need for canes and crutches when they reach their 50s.

Tim McKyer — or the coaching staff — even thinking about his playing today, despite the encouraging tests, is insane. A week ago he couldn’t move. Isn’t that some kind of sign? The doctors say they’re still not sure why he lost feeling. On Thursday, as he spoke, McKyer winced occasionally, bent over, said, “I don’t know, man, my legs feel weird.” Then, in the next breath,
“I’m ready to play.”

He should not play. It’s on the Lions’ conscience if he does. In a normal world, he would not even attend today’s game. But in a normal world, you don’t tackle moving objects. The truth is, Sunday comes around, and for all the noise we make, Utley, Byrd, Mullins, Stingley, they’re just names to shake your head over before kickoff.

This is pro football. You bandage your wounds, get back in line. Next time, maybe you see God for real.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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