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High-impact kickoffs reflect violent sport

The Baltimore Sun

In an instant, Qadry Ismail is back in the NFL's fast lane. Eyes wide, ears ringing, the retired wide receiver draws on the memory of returning kickoffs for a living.

"You put [more] air in your helmet. You put everything on you can. You get the extra [big] shoulder pads. You brace for impact, because you're going to get blown up," he said.

"On kickoff returns, if you're a wedge buster or you're a wedge setter, you're like, 'Mother of Pearl, here this guy comes ... ' "

That's one man's vision of the violent, high-impact world of kickoffs. In a sport in which speed and size produce an impact with potential to change lives forever, there are thousands of high school, college and NFL players who risk serious injury each week.

Injuries are inescapable in football. But a seeming catastrophic spinal cord injury to the Buffalo Bills' Kevin Everett, and the NCAA's decision this season to move kickoffs back to the 30-yard line, have reinforced the reality of a violent game.

Hurt making the tackle on a kickoff in Week 1, Everett has made remarkable progress. He is expected to walk again soon. But almost all collisions on kickoffs leave an indelible mark on players in one way or another, either sooner or later.

Ismail saw his NFL career flash in front of him on an early September Sunday in 2000, when, as a Ravens returner, he suffered a knee sprain on the opening kickoff against the Jacksonville Jaguars. He missed one game. While he came back and helped the Ravens win the Super Bowl, he said he never again returned a kick.

"Every week from that point on was a struggle for me," said Ismail, who retired after the 2002 season.

The Ravens' Justin Bannan, a six-year veteran, has played on special teams his entire career, starting in Buffalo. He estimates that he has been on the field for nearly 300 kickoffs. Aside from getting knocked head over heels once as a rookie with the Bills, he has escaped without serious injury in the short term. Long-term issues are uncertain.

Gerome Sapp, another Ravens special teams player, has played on a similar number of kickoffs in his five-year career without incurring serious injury. Gary Stills, the Ravens' self-appointed "General" of special teams, said he has covered about 400 kickoffs in his nine years in the NFL. The only time he had a significant injury, he said, was on a punt, not a kickoff.

Fortunately, there are many more injuries like Ismail's than like Everett's. In the past 30 years, only three NFL players have incurred some level of paralysis while being involved in a violent collision on the field - Darryl Stingley, Mike Utley and Dennis Byrd. Stingley died in April.

Those more prevalent, lesser injuries are of great concern to Dr. Elton Strauss, the chief of orthopedic trauma at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Injuries like burners or stingers, when players lose feeling temporarily, or torn tissue and cartilage have a debilitating effect down the road.

"Those are the ones that players pay for when they get to be 40 or 50," he said.

It's impossible to gauge these injuries, Strauss said, without a database that records the circumstances involved. "I think the biggest problem in the NFL and probably in college football also is that we never get a list of exact injuries that take place on different kinds of plays," he said.

The NFL keeps such information, spokesman Greg Aiello confirmed, but it is for internal use only.

"It's specific medical information reported by team medical staffs to a professional researcher who keeps the database," Aiello said in an e-mail. "It is broken down and analyzed for the Competition Committee, the commissioner [Roger Goodell] and our medical people to understand trends of the game. A particular injury trend, for example, could lead to a rule change."

Whether the kickoff is the most violent play in football is subjective. Sapp believes it is. Stills says punts are worse.

"Fortunately, I haven't been the guy to hit the wedge a lot," Sapp said, speaking of the return team's formation to spring a kick returner. "I've had to do it before, but usually it's interior guys who have to make contact with the big wedge linemen. Those are the nastiest hits. I've seen guys get knocked unconscious, I've seen guys get separated shoulders, dislocated shoulders and back spasms because of this.

"It's just violent. You're running full speed, they're running full speed and there's no give."

Bannan plays in the wedge (think roughly of a V-shape formation) on the return team.

"Basically, you've got guys [on the kickoff cover team] that have a 50-yard head start and they're trying to hit you as hard as they possibly can," he said. "It's a hard job. There have been times I've dealt out blows and times when I've had the blows come to me, where you get knocked out and have a rough day. If you're not careful, you could really have a lot of trouble with it."

It's not limited to the NFL. The NCAA made the decision this season to move kickoffs back to the 30 from the 35. Strauss thinks it was a mistake and that there will be more injuries.

NCAA statistical data show one predictable trend and one not so predictable. After three weeks, the percentage of touchbacks has plummeted from last season's 29.9 percent to 12.0 this season. Curiously, more kickoffs to the end zone are being returned this season (49.3 percent to 34.5 percent).

In Southern California's 49-31 victory over Nebraska last weekend, Trojans sophomore Vincent Joseph was taken from the field on a stretcher after getting hurt on a kick return. He lay on the field for more than 10 minutes with the prospect of a serious neck injury. Instead, he suffered a bruised larynx after taking an elbow to the throat.

Everett's injury has sent ripples to the college level. Maryland sophomore Nolan Carroll, who plays on kickoff coverage and kickoff return teams, said his mother was especially worried after learning of the Everett situation.

"My dad told me she was worried," Carroll said. "She just said, 'Keep your head up.' She was telling me basically what the coaches were telling me."

Carroll said he watched the Everett play a few times, but that Maryland coaches didn't show it.

"I'm not going to lie," he said. "I was cautious a little bit leading up to the game [at West Virginia]. It's crazy how one play could change your whole life. ... It could happen to any of us."

Christian Varner, a senior defensive back with the Terps and a former Randallstown standout, said he likes to play "loose like an animal" when he's on kick coverage. But he also acknowledged that he, like Everett, has put himself in the wrong tackling position.

"I know sometimes I've led with my head, put my head down sometimes, and I just thank God when I saw that," he said. "That could've been me."

Maryland's special teams coordinator Ray Rychleski said injuries from collisions were inevitable.

"Sometimes," he said, "it's just the way you hit. ... You can get hurt walking down the steps."

Strauss concurred, saying there is more involved than tackling technique.

"It's angles and vectors, too," he said. "If you get hit at a slightly different angle, you may not get the same injury."

Stills, who built a career playing special teams, doesn't have an answer for why there aren't more catastrophic injuries on kickoffs.

"To me, I look at that like walking down the street and tripping over nothing and breaking your ankle," he said. "It's a freak accident, because I've seen myself hit guys and it looked exactly the same [as Everett's hit]."

ken.murray@baltsun.com

heather.dinich@baltsun.com

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