Most pros risk injury, not death

Published: March 31, 2004
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“You’ve heard the saying, ‘I’m going to break my neck trying?’ Well, that’s pretty much me.”

Hard hits, 99 mph fastballs and errant pucks don’t kill players in the four major pro leagues, but they can change players’ lives. Just ask Reggie Brown.

Reggie Brown still watches football. He roots for Texas A&M and the Detroit Lions as well as Tyler Junior College, where his brother, Michael Johnson, is an all-conference strong safety.

Brown still loves football, too. He said he will allow his 22-month-old son, Reginald, to play the game.

But Brown’s near-death experience on the football field has changed him.

He isn’t sure he could do it all again.

“Seeing the way I’ve recovered, I’d still have mixed feelings about it,” Brown said. “I mean, I really enjoyed playing football, so I can’t say, ‘No, I wouldn’t do it again.’ But, the other part is, I would know the risk now, and you can’t go around thinking about injury. You don’t have that split second to say, ‘Well, if throw my body in there like this, this might happen.’ You don’t have time for that.

“You’ve heard the saying, ‘I’m going to break my neck trying?’ Well, that’s pretty much me.”

Brown’s promising NFL career, which began when the Lions made him the 17th overall pick in the 1996 draft out of Fresno State, came to a sudden end with a spinal cord injury in 1997. Brown lost consciousness after his head-first hit, nearly becoming the NFL’s first modern-era death as a result of an on-field injury.

Instead, Brown is a living testament to how rare death is in the four major sports leagues.

Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman had his skull fractured on a pitch by Carl Mays of the New York Yankees on Aug. 16, 1920. He died the next day — the only player killed from injuries in a major league game.

Broken bones, torn knee ligaments and concussions usually are the worst injuries professional players have in their careers. Retired NFL players suffer more. A study conducted by the NFL Players Association found that two-thirds of retired players live in pain, with rebuilt knees, replaced hips, sore backs, double vision, migraines, stiff necks, arthritic hands and crooked fingers.

Serious injury during games, while rare, does occur.

Maurice Stokes, an all-star forward for the Cincinnati Royals, hit his head on the floor and was knocked unconscious in the final regular-season NBA game of 1958. He went into a coma three days later and was permanently paralyzed. Stokes was only 36 when he died of a heart attack 11 years later.

Darryl Stingley and Mike Utley were paralyzed in NFL games. Stingley, a receiver for the New England Patriots, broke his neck on a savage forearm from Oakland Raiders safety Jack Tatum in a 1978 exhibition game, and Utley, a guard for the Lions, broke his neck on the artificial turf of the Pontiac Silverdome in a 1991 game against the Los Angeles Rams.

“Like my book says: I’m happy to be alive,” Stingley said. “If you consider the alternative, then what? I’m happy to have the problems I have. It’s just life.”

Players like Brown, Dickie Thon, Billy Wagner and Donald Brashear make it easy to forget the permanent injuries that 300-pound linemen, 99 mph fastballs and anger can inflict. Thon, Wagner and Brashear all resumed their careers after scary game incidents. Although Brown’s career ended after only 32 games, he lives a normal life.

He is in management at a car dealership group in Austin. He is married to Kerrie Patterson, who played basketball at A&M.

He plays pickup basketball and lifts weights. He can do anything except “run my head into things.”

But he can’t forget the play that changed his life.

“I think about it maybe 10 times a day,” Brown said. “It used to be a hundred times a day.”

Brown dived into a pile to assist Antonio London on a tackle of New York Jets running back Adrian Murrell. Jets guard Lamont Burns was pushed backward into the crown of Brown’s helmet. The spinal contusion caused the nerves controlling all movement below Brown’s neck, including his lungs, to shut down.

Brown’s teammates wondered whether he would leave the Pontiac Silverdome alive. As Brown lost consciousness, safety Mark Carrier frantically signaled to the sideline for help. Two players rushed to the tunnel to get a gurney. Others prayed. Some cried.

Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation saved Brown’s life. Emergency surgery allowed Brown to resume a normal life. Dr. Russ Nockels, the director of spine neurosurgery at Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital, said Brown is “in the upper 2 percent of patients with that injury.”

“There are certain times where I sit back and I say, ‘Wow, I could be in a wheelchair or I could be like this or like that,’ ” said Brown, who had 219 tackles, 21/2 sacks, two interceptions and two touchdowns in his brief career. “There’s another part of me that says, ‘Well, if I was still playing, I could do this, this and this.’

“But I think I’m definitely blessed to be up and walking, to even be here on this earth for that matter.”

Charean Williams (817) 390-7760