NFL fans might as well admit how we so love the Hit

January 28, 2009|By RICK MAESE | RICK MAESE,rick.maese@baltsun.com

TAMPA, Fla. - The Hit rendered us all motionless.

At the point of contact, it was perhaps no different from the legalized brutality we will celebrate every weekend. One man hits another. Maybe he inflicts pain. Or maybe he simply jars the ball loose. At any rate, half the fans scream, half wince, and in short order they all get excited about the prospect of seeing an even bigger hit on the next play.

But this time, Ravens running back Willis McGahee lay still on the field, and for a few brief minutes, we were all left motionless.

A week and a half has passed since Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark leveled McGahee in the AFC title game, and we know now that McGahee would be carted off the field and taken to a hospital but he would be released the next day and would declare he was OK. But I'll never like the short memory we all seem to share.

Because it doesn't seem right to forget the Hit, I won't. I was curious to learn what it meant to Clark. He was the black-and-gold bullet that flew across your television screen that evening. He'll be the starting free safety for the Steelers in Sunday's Super Bowl, too.

Unlike loyal fans cheering at the stadium, Clark says he didn't have much of an opportunity to celebrate. He was dazed, and it wasn't until he reached the Steelers' sideline that he realized McGahee never got to his feet.

"When I sat down. I asked the trainers, 'Could I get up to go check on him?' " Clark says. "They said I wasn't really in the position or the condition to go check on anybody."

To Clark's credit, he knows how precious every second and every play can be. He has sat in a hospital bed before, not sure when or whether he would ever again strap on a helmet.

In the middle of last season, playing in Denver, Clark began feeling pain in his left side. He visited the hospital and on returning to Pittsburgh went through a series of tests. Clark knew he had sickle-cell trait. The exertion and Denver's thin air triggered the pain. His spleen was inflamed and infected. It had to go. A couple of weeks later, doctors took his gallbladder, too.

Clark, who suits up this weekend at 205 pounds, weighed less than 170. He essentially had to rebuild himself as a football player. So, yeah, he knows what's at stake each and every down.

"You never want to hurt another player," Clark says. "That was the biggest thing to me, imagining the fear his family, his friends, loved ones, teammates had, watching him in that position."

Clark woke up the next day with a headache. He didn't call McGahee, but he checked on his status and learned he was released from the hospital. Later, he saw McGahee being interviewed on television. "Once I got that confirmation that he was OK, I just let it be," Clark says.

I suppose that's where there's a slight disconnect. Fans move from one bone-crunching, concussion-causing hit to the next. So do players. They explain away their pain as a cost of doing business, a job hazard. A firefighter might inhale smoke. A teacher might get chalk dust on her skirt. A football player risks his life whenever he goes over the middle.

"Willis McGahee says he's fine, ready for next concussion," read a headline last week on deadspin.com. Which would be funny if it weren't wrapped in some perverse truth. I've met too many retired players who slur their words and lose the remote control 20 times a day to take joy in such hits.

So why do fans? And why do players?

"I would love for us to have that hit, have that play," Clark says, "he get up and walk off and I get up and walk off, and we both go to the sidelines."

But to have the Hit, you're going to have casualties. The two go hand in hand. Players need to appreciate that. Fans need to respect that.

The problem isn't guys like Clark. And it's not some fan who shelled out next month's mortgage payment to watch from the 50-yard line. It's a culture that celebrates violence.

Right when I began to appreciate Clark's empathy and compassion, the disconnect again popped up its conflicted head.

The question was about the attitude of the Steelers' top-ranked defense. Removed from the memory of the McGahee hit, it was like mistaking a weapon for a piece of art.

"When you're playing on this defense, you got to do something to make the guys respect you," Clark said. "I remember getting here and wanting to fit in. They accept you with open arms, but until I hit Chris Henry - I think it was about our third game of the first season - then James Harrison comes up to me and says, 'Now you're a Steeler.' "

"So I think it's just what they expect; that's the types of guys they want to put out on the field."

That's the guys we all apparently want on the field. And even when some of them have to exit that field on a stretcher, we don't seem to care.

Because the Hit renders us all emotionless.

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