PONTIAC, Mich. -- It was the most electrifying afternoon, and the most horrifying.
Barry Sanders had dramatically rallied his Detroit team in the fourth quarter while blowing past the 2,000-yard mark, and the Lions had defeated the New York Jets, 13-10, in a "do-or-die" contest to determine who would advance to the playoffs.
But now those words -- do-or-die -- rang so hollow after kneeling in prayer around Lions linebacker Reggie Brown, while team doctors performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on their fallen teammate, who had lost consciousness.
"If you are a praying person, I would hope you would pray hard, very hard," Lions coach Bobby Ross said.
Brown, 23, not moving or breathing for some time after tackling Jets running back Adrian Murrell early in the fourth quarter, showed movement in his legs and regained consciousness after being placed in an ambulance at midfield.
Almost two hours after the game, long after the Lions' locker room had emptied, team physician Dr. David Collon reported that Brown had suffered a neck injury, but tests revealed no spine fracture and Brown was demonstrating sensation in his arms and legs.
"Very encouraging news," said Chuck Schmidt, Lions executive vice president.
In the afterglow of the Lions' gritty victory, however, players and coaches found it difficult to transfer their thoughts from questions about Brown to questions about the game.
Even the impact of Sanders' awesome talents, which resulted in 112 rushing yards with the game on the line in the fourth quarter, and his season-ending total of 2,053 yards to join O. J. Simpson and Eric Dickerson as the only players in NFL history to top 2,000 yards, failed to prompt much celebration.
"I'm worried about Reggie Brown's family," said Sanders, who ran 15 yards for the game-winning score, then reached the 2,000-yard mark on a 2-yard gain with 2: 15 left.
Sanders could have had the mark erased if he was thrown for a loss on his next run, but he busted free for 53 yards on the very next play to finish off the Jets and send the crowd of 77,624 into a frenzy.
"What an emotional day," said Lions center Kevin Glover, who along with his fellow offensive linemen hoisted Sanders on their shoulders for a ride to the locker room. "It was such a trying day, so wonderful at times, and then so painful. I'm extremely proud of the way everyone stuck together."
The victory by the Lions (9-7) eliminated the Jets (9-7) and Washington Redskins (8-7-1) from the playoffs, and moved Detroit on to Tampa Bay for a first-round playoff game Sunday.
The Jets' loss also sent New England and Miami to the postseason.
"I'm exhausted," said Lions receiver Johnnie Morton, who sprinted the length of the field and up a tunnel, frantic for an ambulance that appeared too slow in arrival. "I was so scared, and they weren't moving.
"I couldn't stop crying. Reggie wasn't moving, and I saw them cutting through his jersey, his pads and then beating on his chest to get him to breathe."
Just minutes earlier the excitement in the Silverdome had reached a crescendo, the noise so deafening that officials had threatened to penalize the team.
The Lions had just taken the lead, 13-10, early in the fourth quarter, sparked by a 47-yard gain by Sanders, when Brown did not get up.
"It was just like a flashback to see him laying there," said Lions defensive lineman Marc Spindler, who had witnessed a similar scene six years earlier with teammate Mike Utley, who was left paralyzed.
While physicians from the Lions and Jets began administering to Brown, it was not fast enough for his teammates, who began waving for a stretcher. Others met in a group, dropped to their knees and, with arms draped around each other's shoulders, prayed.
"My feelings about this game are really insignificant compared to the feelings I have about Reggie Brown," Jets coach Bill Parcells said. "My prayers are with him."
When play resumed, the Jets made progress against the Lions, advancing to the Detroit 9-yard line with the opportunity to regain the lead. Parcells then called for a halfback option pass.
Running back Leon Johnson, running right and also running out of room while nearing the sideline, tossed a pass into the end zone and into the waiting hands of Lions rookie cornerback Bryant Westbrook.
Westbrook juggled the ball, and juggled it again while falling out of bounds, and then juggled it again. The official also failed to gain a grasp on the play, ruling that Westbrook had made the interception although replays clearly showed he was out of bounds while still not in control of the ball.
"I really can't think about the game right now," said Jets cornerback Ray Mickens, a Texas A&M teammate of Brown's. "I lost something greater than that today, and I'm just sitting here only hoping for one thing: that he's all right."
Minn. at N.Y. Giants, 12:30 p.m., chs. 2, 7
Jacksonville at Denver, 4 p.m., chs. 2, 7
New England vs. Miami*, 12:30 p.m., chs. 11, 4
Detroit at Tampa Bay, 4 p.m., chs. 45, 5
* -- Winner of tonight's game will be host.
Top rushing seasons
Player, Team ............. Yr. ..... Yds.
Eric Dickerson, Rams ..... '84 ..... 2,105
Barry Sanders, Lions ..... '97 ..... 2,053
O.J. Simpson, Bills ...... '73* .... 2,003
Earl Campbell, Oilers .... '80 ..... 1,934
Barry Sanders, Lions ..... '94 ..... 1,883
* -- 14 game schedule
Pub Date: 12/22/97