He sat in an office behind smoked-glass windows. He wore a sports jacket and a button-down shirt. No pads. No helmet. These were the final 60 minutes of Doug English’s football life. He was going out as a civilian.
“You OK, big fella?” a front-office guy asked.
“I’m OK,” English said.
“You mind waiting here until the press conference?”
“Well, I don’t have any other plans,” English said.
Nice guys finish last. Someone said that once. But that wasn’t what was burning inside Doug English now. He was used to being last. Last out of the pile. Last to stagger off the field. Last to drop. Last would be fine. It was going out first that was killing him.
But going out he was, retiring at age 32. A neck injury had decided it. A ruptured disk. It had caused him to miss the last six games of 1985. It had put him under the knife. And finally, it had brought him to the team doctor on Sunday, seven months after it happened.
Here was the verdict: As it is, you’ll suffer from arthritis and maybe degenerative bone problems. Play, and you could end up crippled.
“The bottom line,” English said, lowering his eyes, “was that he could not pass me to play football.”
He choked on the words. Here he was, a 6-foot-5, 258-pound lineman, who’d been slamming into giants since high school. And one sentence cut him down. You want to kill a football player? Tell him you can’t pass him to play.
“When I heard the news,” he said, “I said to myself, ‘Well, let’s push it. Let’s beg. Let’s try and talk these guys into something to let me keep playing.’ “
He paused. “But the doctors can’t do that. They have to live with themselves. They don’t want to go to some alumni function 10 years from now and see what I’ve become.”
He crossed his legs. He rubbed his hands over his face. He looked at his watch. Forty-five mintes left on the career. Through the office windows you could see the first TV trucks arriving, and the camera crews getting out.
Do you realize,” he asked suddenly, “that outside of my parents, I’ve been more involved with this team than anything in my whole life?”
He sighed. These are the discoveries you suddenly make. All the time he was out there, 10 years with the Lions, earning four trips to the Pro Bowl, rolling in the melted butter of glory, he never stopped to consider the time. Now he was counting it up. And counting it down. Thirty-five minutes. Thirty minutes.
“How much does football mean?” he was asked.
“It’s me,” he said. “It’s my identity.”
Maybe it would be easier if someone had speared him. If some player had done the dirty deed. Then he could focus the anger, blame somebody. But no, he said. It happened sometime during a game against Chicago last year, in a frozen wet Soldier Field, and all of a sudden he felt a tingling in his hands and fingers. Parts of him went numb. Then he fell down a few times for no apparent reason. He stayed in the game until the fourth quarter, and no one will ever know how much damage that did.
“Why didn’t you come out?” someone asked.
“I didn’t want to abandon ship,” he said. “I hate coming out of a game when we’re losing. It’s too easy. You see a lot of guys doing it. The only fights I’ve ever had with my coaches were over coming out of a game too soon.”
Twenty-five minutes left. A PR man poked his head in and recited the plan: a photographer wanted a quick shot on the field. And then, the press conference.
“All set?” the PR man asked.
Doug English stood up. He took a breath.
“Let’s go,” he said.
He walked to the tunnel, passing stadium workers and an occasional teammate.
“How’s it going?” they’d say.
“Everything’s OK,” he’d say.
And he’d keep walking.
It’s easy for media types to call Doug English a nice guy. He’s always co-operated with reporters, laughed with them, spoken candidly. But you don’t need newspapers for good reviews. Try anywhere.
Try the kid with a brain tumor whom he befriended in the hospital last year. English called him Monday morning to tell him he was retiring. Try the secretaries in the Lions’ offices; they light up whenever he comes into the office. Try the guys sweeping up the Silverdome. Try the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Try anyone on the streets of Detroit.
“Whadya think about Doug English?” you say.
“Great guy,” they say. And they’ve never met him.
The coaches like him. His teammates like him. Oh, maybe a few resented the attention he got. But more were likely to chow down with him in the unofficial Thursday Night Club, in which players gathered at an area restaurant to blow off some steam before zeroing in on Sunday’s game.
Thursday nights. He would miss those.
“It’s the players,” he’d said, when asked what hurt the most about leaving. “Guys like Keith Dorney (his roommate) and Bill Gay and all of them. You live with these guys, fight with them, cry with them.
“I mean, what’s a sport anyway? It’s a billion-dollar business of watching
people play a game that doesn’t mean nothing. So it’s the people that count. I can’t say how much it hurts to be leaving them.”
Back in 1980 he had left voluntarily. Took a year off. He was disillusioned, depressed. Tired of 2-14 seasons and taping his legs from thigh to ankle every day. But a year away renewed him. He came back with a daydreamer’s desire never to wake up outside of football again.
Now, for the last time, he was walking down the tunnel as a Detroit Lion. Twenty minutes to go.
He passed a clean-up crew and stopped to shake hands with one of the custodians.
“Doug English! How you doin’?” the custodian said.
“OK,” English said. “I’m, uh, fixing to hang it up in a few minutes. Gonna call it quits.”
The custodian just stared, forgetting to remove the smile from his face.
“Nawww. Uh-uh,” he said.
“Afraid so,” English said quietly.
He kept walking. The photographer posed him in the middle of the field. Across the way were a dozen rookies, tossing a football. Some knew who he was, this guy in the sports jacket and button-down shirt. Some didn’t. They just stared, then went back to their catch.
Fifteen minutes left in the career. English walked through the carpeted corridors of the Lions’ offices, picking up followers like the Pied Piper. A few secretaries fell into line behind him. A few front-office people. Coach Darryl Rogers. General manager Russ Thomas. The PR staff. They all squeezed into the elevator. English towered above everyone.
“Kind of tight in here,” he said.
The door opened. The ensemble walked down the otherwise deserted hallway. Several Lions players — who had just finished lunch — were coming the other way. Demetrious Johnson saw English and held open his arms, like he was a relative just arriving from a long flight.
“Heyyyy,” Johnson said, hugging him.
“Heyyyyy,” said English, hugging back.
That was better than words. English broke away finally and walked on, on through the press lounge where the other ball players were eating. At the front table sat William Gay, one of his closest buddies. They exchanged glances.
“Just tell ’em you got tired of it,” Gay yelled after him.
“Yeah,” said English, forcing a laugh.
On they marched. Got within five feet of the press conference door. Inside were the microphones, the notepads. The finish line. And suddenly Doug English, who never wanted to come out of the game, disappeared behind the nearest door and closed it behind him.
No one followed him. No one wanted to watch. Through the narrow glass you could see Doug English wiping the tears from his eyes and trying to catch his breath.
No one will be around when Doug English is 50 and aching with the simplest of movements. No one will know how he feels today, waking up without a Detroit Lions locker to call his own.
All you have is what you see. And here is what you saw. Darryl Rogers introduced him with kind words. He stepped up to the microphone, and threw out one last joke.
“I know the only way to get your media guys out here is to offer a free lunch,” he said.
Ten seconds. Doug English swallowed hard.
“With the exception of my family . . .
“And the Good Lord . . .”
Somewhere a distant gun was fired. Time had expired. No more football. No more Thursdays. Nevermore.
” . . . this has been the best thing in my life . . . “
The cameras clicked. The microphone meters jumped. Doug English, dressed in a sports jacket and button-down shirt, was out of it. He was over.
He was saying goodby, ending a career. In his years in the game he’d taken down countless opponents. Now with his farewell, with the saddest kind of tears, he was cutting down an old expression, right across the knees.
Sometimes, nice guys finish first. And it hurts like hell.