As Kevin Walker spoke yesterday about the risk of injury in the NFL, he kept coming back to the phrase, "It's understood." Walker should know -- and not only because he's the player who might have ended Bo Jackson's career.
"That's just the business we're in," the Cincinnati Bengals linebacker said with a sigh. "I guess life itself is that way. You never know what the next day will bring. It's just unfortunate. He was perhaps the greatest athlete in modern-day sports."
But now he's reduced to an X-ray, just as Walker was in 1988, when he was clipped by the New York Jets' Nuu Faaola while covering a kickoff. Walker, 25, was only a rookie then, but a team doctor took one look at his left knee and told him he would require major reconstructive surgery.
The Maryland graduate recovered and played again, and now he's rooting for Jackson to do the same. He saw his tackle in the Jan. 13 playoff game replayed for the first time Monday, shortly after Jackson was released by the Kansas City Royals. Unlike Faaola's clip, his play did not cry out for an apology.
Indeed, as the debate over the extent of Jackson's left hip injury intensified yesterday, the 6-foot-3, 241-pound Walker said he was surprised to learn his tackle had hurt the Los Angeles Raiders running back so badly. "A routine play," he called it. Nothing to regret.
"After I made the tackle, I got up and saw him get up," Walker said from his home in Cincinnati. "The play had stopped. I saw him back on the ground again. He limped off the field. I didn't think it was anything serious. He got off under his own power."
Jackson was injured on the second play of the third quarter, running a sweep away from Walker's inside linebacker position. He gained 34 yards before Walker grabbed him from behind, clutching his right leg. In the wire photo, Walker looks like a dog sinking his teeth into a postman's ankle.
The injury apparently occurred as Jackson planted his left leg and tried to twist away, but frankly Walker couldn't remember. "He was running hard," he said. "He was at full speed. His momentum carried us a couple of yards. I just pulled him to the ground.
"He was doing what he had to do. I was doing what I had to do," Walker continued. "If it was a cheap shot, I'd feel bad, have a lot of regrets. I'd have a lot of trouble living with myself. But I was just playing hard, trying to make the play."
The Raiders went on to a 20-10 victory with Marcus Allen gaining 140 yards on 21 carries and Jackson 77 on only six. Jackson's 12.8 average on the day was below his 13.1 mark in two previous games against the Bengals. "He was definitely the best running back we faced," Walker said.
But now he might never play again, and Walker understands his agony. The Bengals' third-round pick in 1988, he was only six games into his NFL career when Faaola brought him to his knees. "I didn't know if I'd step on a football field again," he said.
He spent the rest of that season on injured reserve, and watched the Bengals lose the Super Bowl from the sidelines. Following surgery, he underwent nine months of rehabilitation. Then came 16 weeks of trying to crack the starting lineup.
"I never got mad [at Faaola], or expected to hear from him," Walker said. "Football is a physical game. There's a very high rate of injury. These things happen. Any time an athlete gets hurt unintentionally, that's to be expected."
In Walker's case, everything worked out for the best; not only did he become a regular in Cincinnati, he completed his consumer-economics degree at Maryland. Jackson, likewise, plans to finish his education at Auburn. But no one knows if he'll resume his athletic career.
"It's something I've been thinking about, what he's going through," Walker said. "I really feel bad to see him hurt, knowing the way he's hurting emotionally. He was in control of everything. He was on top of his game, in both football and baseball."
Surely, no one ever anticipated Bo Jackson becoming just another name in "Transactions," but that's the way he appeared yesterday, sandwiched between a flurry of demotions by the Cleveland Indians (so long, Eric Bell) and Minnesota Twins (nice knowing you, Orlando Lind).
Meanwhile, Walker sat at home in Cincinnati, trying to decide whether to call Jackson, or simply let the matter rest. "I don't know what I'll do at this point," he said. "I definitely feel bad. But it's part of being an athlete. It's something I'm sure he understands."