Byrd's injury focuses attention on helmet

PRO FOOTBALL

December 06, 1992|By VITO STELLINO

Charles Mann pulled his helmet out of his locker at Redskins Park last week to point out the difference between the front and the crown of the helmet.

"See all this in the front [scratch marks]?" the Washington Redskins defensive lineman said.

He then pointed to the smooth crown. "There's nothing on the top of this helmet. It's [scratches] all in the front. That's football. That's the way it is," he said.

Going straight up to make a play is part of football, and it shows on the front of the helmet. Lowering your helmet and hitting with the crown is another matter. That's calling spearing and is illegal.

According to the rule book, spearing is "a tackler using his helmet to butt, spear, or ram an opponent; and any player who uses the crown or top of his helmet against a passer, receiver in the act of catching a pass, or a runner who is in the grasp of a tackler."

"It's using the top [that's illegal]," Mann said. "I got fined for it [in the past]. I know."

Since Dennis Byrd of the New York Jets was paralyzed last Sunday when he hit a teammate while trying to sack Dave Krieg, helmets and spearing have been the topic of much discussion around the league.

Byrd's injury has generally been termed an "accident." That's what Dr. James Nicholas, the chairman of the Jets medical staff, called it. So did Jim Finks, the New Orleans Saints president who heads the competition committee.

"Accidents happen when you step on the football field and play )) this contact sport," said Mann.

There has been a minority opinion, though, that Byrd was spearing. When Mike Utley was paralyzed a year ago, there was no question it was a freak accident. He simply fell on his head while blocking. By contrast, the Byrd play has been the subject of some debate.

Dr. Alan Ashare, chairman of the Safety and Protective Equipment Committee of USA Hockey, told The New York Times, "He was playing with his head down and he was spearing."

Dr. Joseph Torg, an orthopedist in Philadelphia, said, "Byrd was aiming with his head."

Jets coach Bruce Coslet was quick to defend Byrd and said he was blocked by Kansas City tackle Joe Valerio.

"When Dennis was closing on Dave Krieg, he [Valerio] shoved him, and it shoved Dennis off balance. It was a good block," Coslet said.

Coslet disputed the comments by Ashare, saying: "It was some hockey guy or something who was claiming this, wasn't it? I don't know how many football games he's seen, but unfortunately, we watched this several times and it was a hell of a hit."

Byrd's injury is likely to put more emphasis on the use of the helmet in the league.

Finks said the league will continue to stress that the helmet can't be used as a weapon and make sure the officials watch for it.

The league also is likely to continue to monitor cervical stenosis, which is a narrowing of the spinal canal which makes a player more vulnerable to spinal injuries.

At least four players in the past six years, Tim Lewis of the Green Bay Packers, Don Blackmon of the New England Patriots, Derrick Burroughs of the Buffalo Bills and Danny Peebles of the Cleveland Browns, have retired after suffering blows that showed how vulnerable they were. All four got out in good health.

Courage

Utley's struggle against his paralysis has been an inspiration, and Byrd seems to have the same type of personality.

Teammate Cary Blanchard said last week that Byrd's wife, Angela, told him: "These words come from Dennis. He said he was glad God chose him because he had enough faith and strength. He's glad he was chosen because he thinks he can get through it. And she said that she was thankful God chose her to be his partner, to be there to support him."

Alice's picks

Alice Ross, wife of Chargers coach Bobby Ross, isn't surprised that the Chargers are on the verge of a playoff berth.

She said she told Dean Spanos, son of owner Alex Spanos, at the owners' meeting last March that the Chargers would be in the playoffs this year and in the Super Bowl next year.

"Bobby was kicking me under the table," she said.

Now that the Chargers are virtually in, she's being more cautious and is sounding like a coach. "We've got to focus on our next opponent [Phoenix]," she said.

The legal game

The NFL, which moved its deadline up to Jan. 6 for underclassmen to apply for the draft (if there is a draft), indicated it won't allow players in the draft who have only spent two years in college. That would apply to Marshall Faulk of San Diego State.

The league said it will go to court to try to enforce the rule. The league will almost certainly lose this fight, but league executives are trying to mollify the colleges by making the effort.

All this puts the NFL Players Association in a strange position. It encourages players to stay in school, but Doug Allen, the assistant executive director, said there's no way the NFL can legally stop players from coming out.

The NFLPA also plans to sue to stop the draft unless the two sides get a bargaining agreement, which appears unlikely.

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