NFL Nation: Zach Thomas
Taylor: "I'm shocked and saddened. Devastated, really. Junior was one of the most positive, uplifting people I have ever known. He was always full of life and energy and had an infectious spirit that lifted everyone around him. Junior called everyone 'buddy' and treated them like he had known them forever. It would be easy for me to say he was a great friend and teammate, and a tremendous competitor, but that would be selling Junior short. Junior Seau was an individual of great honor and integrity, a leader of men and someone with a deep rooted passion for giving of himself to make the people, the community and especially the children around him better. This is an immeasurable loss for so many. My heart and prayers go out to Junior's family, Gina and their children. I'm going to miss you buddy."
Thomas: "I have never been around a man with more love and passion for the game of football than Junior Seau, and he lived life the same way. Junior was always fun to be around, always positive and made every person who knew him feel like he was their best friend. You never heard one negative word come out of his mouth. Junior just had this energy that followed him around wherever he went, almost like theme music. It was like he never had a bad day. As a young linebacker, Junior was my hero growing up and once I had the opportunity meet him I saw that he was everything I hoped he would be and more. Getting the chance to play alongside of Junior Seau, the greatest linebacker to ever play the game, made my dreams come true. I am absolutely devastated to hear this news. Today I lost my hero, my friend, my buddy."
Turner stepped into the backyard of his parents' Prattville, Ala., home for some fresh air and hopefully a diversion. He still laughs at the memory of what happened next. His father bolted out the door and blurted the big announcement: "The Boston Patriots!"
Turner gently corrected him. Actually, it was the New England Patriots. They selected him 71st overall, the second fullback off the board.
The moment was exhilarating for a father and his only child. Raymond Turner coached Kevin from 5 years old until junior high and nearly wept the first time he saw his son enter Bryant-Denny Stadium decked in crimson and white.
Now his son was headed to the National Football League. He loaded up his maroon 1991 Ford Bronco and, with Guns N' Roses blaring, headed off to Massachusetts, where he began an eight-year, $8 million NFL career, met his future wife and scored some touchdowns.
Yet if he knew then what he knows today, he'd be torn about pulling out of Prattville.
"If they would have come to me and said, 'I've seen the future. This is what happens.' Of course, I would stop playing immediately," Turner said. "But, as we all know, nobody can see the future. For me, it just falls into a long line of bad decisions."
Turner is divorced. He went bankrupt on bum real estate investments. He was addicted to painkillers for a couple of years. None of those problems are the worst of it.
Ten months ago, the 41-year-old father of three was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the incurable neuromuscular disorder commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
Turner's arms don't work well, his hands even less. His pinch strength, a measurement of the strength generated by the thumb and forefinger, is one pound. That's comparable to an infant. He doesn't have enough might to squeeze toothpaste out of a tube.
Forget about buttoning a shirt. It can take him half an hour to wiggle into his blue jeans with nobody there to help, but he said, "socks are the worst."
"It's quite a different way of life," Turner said. "It's pretty embarrassing, but cleaning yourself after going to the bathroom becomes very difficult when you can't use your hands. These are just things you don't think about.
"You have to be very creative. I can't pull down my zipper. I got what I call zipper-getters. It's a little hook with some fishing wire that goes around the zipper of my pants so you can go to the bathroom."
Doctors have told him his speech probably will be the next to go. His throat and jaw muscles cramp, reminding him ALS is as relentless as he was on the football field.
Eventually, it will kill him. Maybe within another year or two. ALS is undefeated.
Recent scientific data strongly suggests repeated head trauma can cause a condition that mimics ALS. The neuromuscular disorders are virtually identical -- so alike the difference is detectable only by autopsy.
"Football had something to do with it," said Turner, who has no family history of ALS. "I don't know to what extent, and I may not ever know. But there are too many people I know that have ALS and played football in similar positions. They seem to be linebackers, fullbacks, strong safeties. Those are big collision guys."
To raise research funds and awareness about sports-related head injuries and ALS, he formed the Kevin Turner Foundation.
Dr. Ann McKee said Tuesday the latest information shows NFL players have eight to 10 times the likelihood of being diagnosed with ALS than the average citizen. McKee was the lead neuropathologist for the study that linked head trauma in collision sports to the ALS variant.
The effects of head trauma are a hot-button NFL issue. The league has included ALS as an automatically qualified condition under the 88 Plan, which assists former players with medical expenses related to head injuries.
Cases continue to emerge about retired players experiencing early dementia, memory loss, depression, aggression or erratic behavior. Last month, four-time Pro Bowl safety Dave Duerson committed suicide after complaining of severe headaches, vision impairment and an increasing inability to form coherent sentences.
Parcells said he was "sick" to hear about Duerson's death. Duerson played for Parcells on the New York Giants' 1990 championship team. Parcells coached Turner for two years in New England.
"Look, we all know that this is hazardous to your health," Parcells said in a somber tone last weekend. "We do know that. And fullback is a very high-collision position. It's not like playing wide receiver or corner. He's either running the ball and getting tackled, catching the ball and getting tackled or blocking somebody.
"I've seen a lot of big collisions in football. We all know when we sign up for this that there's an element of risk involved."
'A special kid'
Turner wasn't a superstar in terms of decorations. He didn't go to Pro Bowls. But he was far from an NFL commoner.
"He had a heart that just wouldn't stop," Raymond Turner said of his son. "From the time he put the gear on to the time he took it off, he was a competitor. Never once in my lifetime did I have to tell him to hustle. It was there. It was built in. He knew what he wanted to do."
The Eagles loved Turner enough that they signed him to a three-year, $4.125 million offer sheet with a $1.5 million signing bonus when he became a restricted free agent in 1995 after two seasons with the Pats. They outbid the Washington Redskins. Daryl Johnston of the Dallas Cowboys was the only fullback with a bigger contract.
The bemused Patriots couldn't match the Eagles and settled for a third-round draft choice as compensation. New England fared well with the transaction. The draft pick turned out to be running back Curtis Martin.
"There's nobody out there who wouldn't like [Turner] as a person, player, practice habits, versatility," Parcells said. "This kid had everything. He was a special kid.
"He was a first-down player and was capable of playing on third down because he had such great hands. He really was an all-purpose back. And you don't see those fullbacks anymore. Kevin was a traditional, old-time, versatile, run-block-and-catch fullback."
Turner's best season was 1994 with the Patriots. When not blocking for Marion Butts, Turner made 52 receptions, gained 582 yards from scrimmage and scored three touchdowns -- all career highs. Turner scored an overtime touchdown in Week 11 to beat the Minnesota Vikings. His catch in the left corner of the end zone was Drew Bledsoe's 45th completion on his 70th attempt, a record that stands by one throw.
Whatever glory Turner experienced came with a price. He absorbed punishment. That's how players often win their team's Ed Block Courage Award, as Turner did with Philadelphia in 1996. They're admired for their perseverance.
Turner knows of only two concussions he suffered in the pros. One came with the Patriots in 1994 against the Cincinnati Bengals. He twisted awkwardly while trying to catch a pass near the goal line, and his head struck Riverfront Stadium's hard artificial turf.
The other known concussion happened with the Eagles in 1997, while Turner was running the wedge on a kickoff return against the Green Bay Packers at Veterans Stadium.
"The next thing I remember," Turner said, "I was asking our backup quarterback, Bobby Hoying, 'You're going to think I'm crazy, but are we in Green Bay or are we in Philly?' I was looking around that stadium and could not figure it out.
"I stayed out for two, maybe three series of downs, got my senses back and finished the game. It was a fairly significant injury to my brain, and I just kept pounding on it."
Turner's father is aware football probably contributed to the ALS diagnosis. He often wonders what hit wrecked his son's brain.
Was it the wedge? Was it the time Turner collided with Atlanta Falcons linebacker Jessie Tuggle so violently at the goal line he knocked Tuggle out? Was it his final NFL play in 1999, when he barely got a piece of Indianapolis Colts linebacker Cornelius Bennett but both arms went numb for 15 seconds?
The probable answer is all of them contributed amid an accumulation of other hits that didn't register.
"I never thought about my head, the way I was abusing my head, the pounding my head was taking and the long-term consequences," Turner said. "Playing the position I did, I leveled my head every time I was on a lead block. It was part of the three points: my two hands and my head. That's how I was taught to do it."
A wicked game
McKee helps run the brain bank at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University School of Medicine. The center has studied 46 brains of athletes who sustained repeated, sports-related head trauma. Research indicates concussions aren't necessary to induce frightening symptoms.
Many retired NFL players, such as Turner, Miami Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas, Buffalo Bills guard Conrad Dobler and Patriots cornerback Mike Haynes, have pledged to donate their brains for research.
"Every month, we've been getting more cases into the brain bank and seeing more cases of [chronic traumatic encephalopathy] and some with this [ALS] variant. It's more and more difficult to embrace this sport as it's currently being played. With each month of this work, it just seems worse."
McKee isn't some fuddy-duddy intellectual, trying to undermine football's place in society. She was raised in a football household just outside Green Bay. Her father played for Grinnell College. She attended every game her brothers played.
"Football is a way of life there," McKee said. "It's huge. It's how we define ourselves. I'm sure I would have played if I'd have been born a boy. Football is an enormous part of my heritage. I do understand that football is so much more than a sport to people. It's what we do."
But is football evolving into a culture of regret?
Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, who has a long history of concussions, recently told HBO's "Real Sports" that if he had a son, the boy wouldn't be allowed to play football. Four-time Pro Bowl safety Blaine Bishop didn't make an edict but showed off his scars until his son decided not to play, which suits his dad just fine.
Turner's jovial patter quickly switched to an agonized sputter when asked whether his two sons should play football. Nolan, 13, has been playing for a while. Cole, who will turn 8 next month, started last year.
Turner doesn't let his kids (10-year-old Natalie is a cheerleader) drink sodas because he doesn't think it's good for them, yet football maintains a powerful influence in their family. Turner hinted he won't let Cole play this year because he's perhaps too young. Nolan's situation sounded more complicated.
"It's something I struggle with every day, whether to just lay the law down and say, 'No, we're not playing,'" Turner said. "Or do I let him live his life and take a chance? But, God, I can't tell you how hard a question that is, especially in Alabama. I'm still not sure that I'm going to let him."
Turner was 5 years old when his dad began coaching him. In many ways, it turned out well.
Colleges began recruiting him as a high school sophomore. Florida State coach Bobby Bowden came to their house, but Alabama won out. The Crimson Tide chose Turner for their commitment to excellence award his junior season. He was a captain his senior season. He left with a finance degree and lived a fantasy some folks would give a limb to experience.
"If they'd have told me when I was 23 years old, in the best shape of my life and just got the dream chance of my life to play in the NFL -- first week of practice in New England, I'm in awe of Andre Tippett, Irving Fryar -- but in 17 years, you're not going to be able to pull up your pants ... you could not imagine it,” Turner said.
"Most people would say, 'If there's a 10 percent chance of that happening, I'll take my chances.'"
'You know it's coming'
Chances are, Turner doesn't have long to live. One of his doctors gave him two years. That was almost a year ago.
ALS has no cure. There are no treatments to stop or reverse it. Fifty percent of ALS patients do not live three years beyond their first symptoms. Only 20 percent reach five years.
One by one, motor neurons steadily shut down. As they do, muscles wither. Although Turner's brain will remain sharp, he will lose his ability to walk, speak and swallow.
ALS eventually reaches the muscles of the chest wall and diaphragm. Suffocation and pneumonia are the most common causes of death.
"There are still times, and let me say it's not very often, in the past year where I'll sit there and become completely overwhelmed and break down and cry," Turner said. "Every now and then I'll let myself think about it. I'll see something or hear something that reminds me of the inevitable. You know it's coming."
Turner said he intends to immerse himself in his children's lives and his foundation's cause. He travels the country for speaking engagements to raise funds. Country-gospel singer Ty Herndon dedicated the title track of his Grammy-nominated album, "Journey On," to the Kevin Turner Foundation. Turner and his children appear in the poignant video.
Turner’s father, meanwhile, can't help but worry. He admitted he and his wife, Myra, feel helpless -- a disconcerting sentiment when it comes to any child, let alone an only child. Raymond is 67 years old, and he's dealing with the likelihood he'll outlive his once-vigorous son. The unavoidability hit home the day a packet arrived in the mail, detailing the process of donating his son's organs.
Turner's mom and dad are considering moving from Prattville closer to Birmingham, Ala., where their grandchildren live, about 85 miles away. Raymond wants to make sure they have a father figure nearby.
"The fact that I'm healthy lets me think I'll be around to see the kids through," Raymond said. "This is not supposed to be this way. Just things you've got to think about and don't want to think about, but you've got to be realistic."
So much has transpired in the 19 years since Turner drove that Ford Bronco from Prattville to the NFL. He made it a point to swing through Manhattan on the way, getting a slice of New York-style pizza and some cheesecake from Carnegie Deli just in case his ride didn't last very long.
The possibilities were infinite. Today, they're decidedly limited. But Turner insists he will make the most of the time he has left and maybe -- just maybe -- be the first person who beats ALS.
On Tuesday night, Turner’s father pondered how amazed he was the first time he glimpsed at his son in an Alabama uniform and saw "Kevin Turner" scroll across the bottom of his television screen on draft day.
And then, he considered how pleased he is with Turner today. The feeling doesn't pertain to football at all anymore.
"I swell up and tell him so often about how proud I am of him, most part for being a man of good character," Raymond said. "That's meant more to me than anything."
Soliai has signed his franchise tag. That means he's guaranteed about $12.5 million for next season, the average of the five highest-paid NFL defensive linemen.
No Dolphins defensive player has come close to making that much money for one season of work.
Soliai's agent, David Canter, tweeted the signing Saturday night.
Soliai is important to the Dolphins' defense because he's a solid 3-4 nose tackle, one of the more premium positions in the game.
But he hasn't been to so much as a Pro Bowl.
Dolphins outside linebacker Cameron Wake was a Pro Bowler and second-team All-Pro this past season. Defensive lineman Randy Starks was a Pro Bowler, too.
Strong safety Yeremiah Bell went to the Pro Bowl two seasons go. The Dolphins made Karlos Dansby the highest-paid inside linebacker at an average of about $8 million a year.
So you have to ask: Where does Soliai rank as the best defender on the Dolphins' current roster?
He watched his teammates go bonkers in celebration. They jumped. They hugged. They raised their fists -- even a few index fingers -- in self salute.
The Miami Dolphins hadn't won just any game. They had won their first game. It was Week 15.
"I remember watching how crazy we were acting out there," said Holliday, the veteran defensive tackle. "I don't know if people could really appreciate it. If you weren't a part of that team or one of those guys who went out every day and worked as hard as we did to get it, you wouldn't understand it."
"That was just one win, but it was our Super Bowl."
The power of one victory is immense.
Members of that '07 Dolphins team know what the Buffalo Bills are going through this year -- and then some.
The Bills are the NFL's only winless team. They're 0-8 heading into Sunday's game against the Detroit Lions in Ralph Wilson Stadium.
The '07 Dolphins lost their first 13 games before they pulled out a dramatic victory, beating the Baltimore Ravens when undrafted quarterback Cleo Lemon connected with undrafted receiver Greg Camarillo for a 64-yard touchdown in sudden death. Camarillo hadn't scored a touchdown since high school.
That's how thin the Dolphins' margin for error was.
"That day, we made a play," said Lemon, now playing for the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. "It was a great moment. But as a professional you never want to have a season like that."
The '07 Dolphins lost six games by a field goal that year. The Bills have lost each of their past three games by three points, two of them in overtime.
Bills tight end David Martin tells his teammates how much a single "W" can wash away the pressure, the doubt, the feelings of inadequacy and the ridicule that builds with each passing defeat.
Martin played on the '07 Dolphins, too.
"One win would make a big difference," Martin said by phone Thursday from One Bills Drive. "We have a young team, and I'm sure right now it feels like we're doing all this for nothing. But one win will lift everybody's spirits.
"Every game you lose is heartbreaking. That first win in 2007 felt like the Super Bowl. That's what one win will do."
In speaking this week with some players from the '07 Dolphins, I heard them unapologetically compare winning their first game to the feeling of winning a championship. They insisted they weren't being hyperbolic.
I thought the best way to quantify achieving victory late in the season would be to ask somebody with a Stanford engineering degree. I put the question to Camarillo in algebraic terms.
If the value of any victory is "x," then what is the exponential value of a victory when a team is 0-8 or, in the '07 Dolphins' case, 0-13?
I'm not sure if Camarillo pulled out a pad of paper and a slide rule, but he paused for a few moments to weigh the equation.
"If you get it in your first five weeks, it's not that big," Camarillo said after Minnesota Vikings practice Wednesday afternoon. "When you're 0-8, it starts getting really bad. When you're 0-5, you still have time to get things rolling.
"That one win in our 14th game was the equivalent of winning 10 games. That win for us was as good as winning a playoff game."
At 0-8, Camarillo thought a victory might be worth five to the Bills.
Camarillo bemoaned that losing so many close games is mentally grueling. He sounded exhausted just talking about 2007.
Without inside knowledge of the Bills, Camarillo surmised how they're feeling right now. He said they're working hard each week, sacrificing and stressing over that first victory. To repeatedly come close and then have the game slip away on the final play -- or in the waning moments -- becomes torture.
"You go into each week actually thinking 'OK, this is going to be the week. We're going to get our victory this week,' " Camarillo said. "As the season wears on, you're still a professional. You might turn from thinking you're going to win to hoping you're going to win. But you're ready to compete.
"Then as soon as something goes wrong -- you're 0-8 and throw a pick six or fumble the ball -- you drop your head and say 'Oh, no. Here we go again.' It's that mentality that causes you to lose more games."
The '07 Dolphins dealt with greater pressure than this year's Bills are encountering. Imagine what it must've felt like to get so close to becoming the first team in NFL history to go 0-16 -- the Lions didn't pull their oh-fer until a season later -- when your franchise's claim to fame is being the only team to go undefeated and win the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, the New England Patriots were making their run at surpassing the '72 Dolphins' perfect season.
Miami was plagued by significant injuries in 2007. They lost their starting quarterback (Trent Green), best two running backs (Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams), star linebacker (Zach Thomas) and several other starters to major injuries. They traded top receiver Chris Chambers. First-year head coach Cam Cameron seemed overmatched.
"Week in and week out ,you're the butt of the joke," said Holliday, a 13-year pro who's now in his first season with the Washington Redskins. "It gets frustrating.
"These guys are tremendous competitors, and everybody's watching. Every conversation you're having with your friends, your family, the media, the fans is about you losing. That gets very tiring."
Jay Leno already is using the Bills as a punch line in his monologues.
One victory would put an end to that. One win and the Bills go from being an obvious laughingstock to one of many, including the Dallas Cowboys, Carolina Panthers, San Francisco 49ers and others.
"If you're 1-9, they will stop talking about you and that 0-16 talk," Camarillo said. "As soon as you've won you're just a bad team. You're not the worst team."
In Western New York, however, there's an undercurrent of support for the Bills to avoid winning. Talk-radio shows, message boards and my e-mail inbox are inundated with aspirations of 0-16 to ensure the top pick in next April's draft.
For those who feel that way, know the players don't agree with you.
"If you're thinking about going 0-16, there's going to be some major changes on that team," Camarillo said. "Players aren't planning for next year because half the people won't be back."
Another recurring concept in my conversations for this story was the idea of momentum. The Dolphins didn't win again after stunning the Ravens in December 2007. They had only two more chances, though, and Cameron became a dead man coaching when Bill Parcells was hired to oversee football operations right about then.
"We have more pieces to the puzzle here," said Martin, comparing the teams. "I think when we get that first one we can string a few in a row and get that winning feeling around here."
Lemon is close friends with Bills cornerback Drayton Florence and gets the impression when speaking to his former San Diego Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars teammate the Bills have their heads in the right place.
"These guys are fighting hard," Lemon said. "They just haven't been able to finish games and just seem to find a way to lose. Unlike us in 2007, they're healthy. They're making plays. If they can get just one win, they can easily turn it around and have a respectable season."
Even if the Bills can't win half of their remaining games and cobble together a 4-12 record, they still have something to look forward to every Sunday for the next two months.
One win at this stage won't earn the Bills any kind of trophy. But they probably will run around the field in jubilation like they'd just won the Super Bowl.
"I did feel like it, though," Holliday said with a laugh. "It felt really, really good."
Dolfans didn't quite know what to make of a traitorous community hero who thrilled them for a dozen years then jumped to the enemy.
Jets supporters weren't sure either. Alpha fan Fireman Ed blasted the decision to sign him. Taylor is the NFL's active sacks leader, but he had mocked the fans, their stadium, their J-E-T-S chant for years.
So what was he?
On his final play before returning to face the Dolphins, there was no more doubt.
After five months of image limbo, it took 2.8 seconds last weekend for Taylor to become a bona-fide Jet.
The Jets led the New England Patriots by two touchdowns with 4:15 to play at the New Meadowlands, but Tom Brady had a first down at the Jets' 16-yard line.
Brady took the shotgun snap. Taylor, at right end, bolted from his three-point stance like he was going to speed rush Patriots left tackle Matt Light. Running back Sammy Morris tried to chip block.
Taylor spun right 360 degrees to avoid Morris and saw "Brady" and "12" dead ahead. In a flash, that white-on-blue stitchwork was about all that separated Taylor from Brady's spine. The ball popped out, a vintage Taylor moment.
"That could probably be the symbolic play," Taylor said by phone Thursday from the team's facility in Florham Park, N.J. "I didn't hear them chanting my name when I was on the ground. I didn't hear that over the pain.
"But my wife told me later on 'Can you believe they were chanting your name?' "
The metamorphosis occurred just in time to give his old team something extra to think about.
Taylor still can be a game-changer.
"When I know the other guy on the other side and I know what he's capable of and the kind of career that the guy has had," said Dolphins coach Tony Sparano, "those kind of people keep me up at night.
"Jason's a game player. So I know what the guy's going to bring to the table when he gets out there. I know he's going to be excited to play. I would expect nothing but Jason Taylor's absolute best."
Taylor, after a lost 2008 season with the Washington Redskins, recorded seven sacks last year for the Dolphins, tied for second on the team. But his contract was up, and the Dolphins waited to re-sign him. The front office wasn't convinced Taylor could remain productive at 36 and wanted to explore younger options before committing to him for another year.
He felt strung along without any guarantees of a new contract, so he took up the Jets on their offer.
Taylor wanted to finish his career with the Dolphins, "but it didn't work out," he said on a conference call with South Florida reporters Wednesday. "The hardest part was just making that decision, just making that move initially, but all the while knowing in my heart of hearts I wasn't turning my back on anyone, but just I didn't have a home."
He insisted Sunday's game isn't about retribution or settling some kind of score with Miami's front office. But if the Jets were to win only one more game all year and Taylor got to pick, Sunday's game certainly would be his choice.
"I have a lot of friends on that team still, guys that mean a lot to me and I'm very close to," Taylor said. "At the end of the day, they're not going to take it easy on me and I'm going to try and make as many plays as I can. But there's no bitterness."
Taylor is playing more than the Jets intended when they signed him to be a situational pass-rusher. Top outside linebacker Calvin Pace has been out with a broken right foot. Pace had a team-leading eight sacks and 13 tackles for losses along with 16 quarterback hits and three forced fumbles last year despite missing the first four games because of a suspension.
Taylor isn't that kind of dynamic player anymore, but he showed with his game-sealing sack of Brady he still can give quarterbacks plenty to worry about, especially when the game is on the line.
"He's a closer," Jets coach Rex Ryan said. "He's one of those guys. Great pass-rushers win games for you in the fourth quarter. He's got a history of that throughout his career that he's a guy that closes. Fourth-quarter sacks win games, and that was a huge one right there."
He has 128.5 career sacks, with all but 4.5 coming in a Dolphins uniform. His name will be in the team's Ring of Honor soon after he retires. He has sacked 66 different quarterbacks and would love to make ex-teammate Chad Henne his 67th victim. Of course, he'll need to figure out a way to get past Pro Bowl left tackle Jake Long for that to happen.
Taylor claimed he hasn't been obsessed with playing the Dolphins.
The 2010 NFL schedule was released the day before Taylor signed his contract April 21. From the moment he signed his first Jets autograph, he knew he was going back to Sun Life Stadium on Sept. 26 to play the Dolphins.
"We only get 16 of these a year, and they're all so important," Taylor said. "I never got ahead, thinking about one more than the other, and this one's no different.
"I knew it was on the schedule. I knew it was coming up and I'd have to deal with it at some point, but I wasn't sitting around, waiting for it."
Taylor wouldn't let his family and friends talk about the game with him over the past five months. Now they can get excited about the game without hiding it. He doesn't have a luxury box at the stadium anymore, but he joked his wife Katina, the sister of former Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas, "will be somewhere out there in a safe place."
The reason for that is because everybody who will be in Sun Life Stadium knows darn well who Taylor's playing for now.
A month ago, Thomas lashed out at the Dolphins over how they handled the departure of Jason Taylor, his brother-in-law and former teammate.
Thomas felt Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland was being disrespectful to Dolphins tradition. Thomas also relayed a story about how the Dolphins refused to let him have a farewell news conference at the team's facility when he was released after the 2007 season.
"You've got to respect players that have been good to the game," Thomas said at the time. "I don't like the organization to look bad that way."
But the Dolphins took a positive step in the other direction by bringing him back after a season with the Dallas Cowboys and a failed attempt to continue his career with the Kansas City Chiefs last year.
"As a long time fan of the Dolphins I know what Zach Thomas has meant to this franchise, both the contributions he made on the field and the leadership he provided off the field," Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said. "No obstacle was too tough for Zach to overcome, from joining the team as an unheralded fifth-round draft choice in 1996 to doubts about him being too slow or too small to make it in the league.
"Zach persevered by combining his intelligence, his dedication to the game, and his abilities to become one of the greatest players in Dolphin history."
There's this one little issue of the highest-paid defensive tackle in the league biding his time in Nashville while Haslett installs the defense that Redskins coach Mike Shanahan fell in love with during his football sabbatical. Albert Haynesworth signed up for a 4-3 scheme when he left the Titans for the riches of free agency and he's not convinced the nose tackle role will play to his strengths. For his part, Shanahan doesn't seem to particularly care what Haynesworth thinks and he has attempted to trade him.
But even if Haynesworth eventually finds his way back to Ashburn, Va., it's not as if the Redskins have the perfect personnel for the 3-4. As many as 15 teams are expected to feature a 3-4 base defense -- three down linemen and four linebackers -- in 2010, so it's not like the Skins have arrived early to the party. If they need a point of reference, Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers might be a good resource.
He helped the Packers transition to a 3-4 scheme in '09. As my NFC North colleague Kevin Seifert noted, the Packers had the No. 1 defense in the league in early December. But the Packers allowed the Steelers and the Cardinals to combine for 1,000 yards of total offense in two subsequent games, one of which ended their season.
I guess what I'm saying is that the proliferation of 3-4 schemes doesn't necessarily mean it's the only way to go. I seem to recall a couple of 4-3 schemes in the Super Bowl. And we watched the Vikings' 4-3 scheme dismantle Tony Romo and the Cowboys last January.
Second-round choice Pat Angerer could be a candidate to play on the strong side, where Philip Wheeler finished the year after Tyjuan Hagler had beat him out in camp but got hurt.
At Iowa, Angerer played his final three seasons in the middle. Jon Gruden just compared him to Zach Thomas. But Matt Williamson of Scouts is a little surprised about his 4.73 speed: “Angerer makes a lot of plays, but his lack of speed doesn't fit the Colts LB mold.”
He does, however, fit their size mold. He’s just over 6 feet and weighs in around 235 -- numbers right in line with Brackett and Session. Write-ups make him sound like a playmaker who might not have all the measurables, which are just the sort of things Bill Polian isn’t generally concerned with.
The Colts have five picks remaining -- 94th in the third, 129th in the fourth, 162nd in the fifth, 238th and 240th in the seventh -- and the lingering question is about the offensive line.
It’s perceived as a need after Bill Polian complained about the group's play in the Super Bowl and told Ryan Lilja’s agent upon the guard’s release that they were looking to get better. Adam Terry and Andy Alleman have been added, but many expected they’d address the offensive line high in the draft too.
Comments at his pre-draft press conference should have signaled for us to ease up on those expectations.
Instead they’ve gone with edge rusher Jerry Hughes in the first and Angerer in the second.
The former Miami Dolphins star ragged on the Jets for years. He ridiculed their organization, their chant and their stadium.
Taylor is a Jet, and they're going to need to forgive him.
"I think the number one currency in the NFL is what you do on the football field," Taylor said. "If you want to get results, if you want to get something done, if you want to get a new contract, the best way to go about doing that is by your play. That's what I plan to do: Come over here and play my butt off like I have for 13 years in the league and give this organization and these fans everything that I have.
Dolfans still were stung by Taylor's departure. One faction views him as a traitor for jumping to the hated Jets, but most seem to be upset with the Dolphins' front office for mishandling Taylor.
The Dolphins insisted upon waiting until after the draft to address Taylor's future. But there were no promises they would re-sign him, especially if they picked up a blue-chip outside linebacker. And there were no assurances the Jets wouldn't do the same.
Taylor had almost no choice but to take the only offer on the table.
"It is pretty ironic where we find ourselves right now," Taylor said, "but I think God lets things happen in life for a reason, and this is where I'm supposed to be right now. I'm here for one reason, and I'm here to play football as best as I can to help this team win a Super Bowl.
"People in Hollywood spend a lot of time trying to figure out a way to end a movie or people try to find a way to end a book. What better ending is it than to win a Super Bowl? To do it here would be pretty ironic, but it would be awesome."
Jets reporter Rich Cimini caught up with the Jets' most famous fan, Fireman Ed Anzalone, to get his take on the Taylor signing for ESPNNewYork.com.
"I don't like the way he talked about Jets fans, but you have to move on," Anzalone told Cimini. "The bottom line is, Jason Taylor is a competitive maniac. If he plays with the same anger and passion with the Jets as he did with the Dolphins, it could be a marriage made in heaven."
Thomas and Taylor combined for 13 Pro Bowls in the 11 years they starred together for the Dolphins defense. They're also brothers-in-law. Taylor married Thomas' sister, Katina.
"Everybody hates the Jets," Thomas told Sid Rosenberg of Miami sports-radio station WQAM. "I hate the Jets. But he has to do what he has to do and get respect. You're driven by respect as a player, especially the good ones. And he's got it from Rex Ryan."
Thomas' comments will resonate with Dolfans. While they ran hot and cold with Taylor over the years because he sometimes was viewed as a pretty boy who made too many commercials and dared to participate in "Dancing With the Stars" and not Bill Parcells' first offseason conditioning program in 2008, Thomas is revered.
Thomas is a Dolphins icon, an everyman overachiever who was drafted in the fifth round and selected first-team All-Pro five times. When I asked readers to select their Dolphins Mount Rushmore as part of an ESPN.com project last year, Thomas received the fourth-most votes behind Dan Marino, Don Shula and Larry Csonka.
Thomas, his decibel level rising throughout the interview, said he's "a Dolphin for life," but alleged Taylor deserved better treatment from general manager Jeff Ireland.
"I mean, all-time sack leader right now as an active player, and you're going to talk about him when you're asked in the media like he's a first- or second-year player?" Thomas said. "[Ireland] should know how to respect guys that's been great to the game. That's fine if you don't have a need for him, but you tell him up front."
The Dolphins insisted upon waiting until after the draft to address Taylor's future with the club. Even then, there were no guarantees they'd have Taylor back.
The move was bittersweet for Thomas, who predicted Taylor will thrive with the Jets.
"He's sad," Thomas said. "He waited as long as he could. Everybody wants to feel wanted. The Jets, they wanted him. They're a team on the rise, and I hate to say it, but they got the No. 1 defense and are going to be even stronger, and you don't think Rex Ryan has a game plan for Jason Taylor?
"It's going to be better than the game plan they used with him [in 2009] because I hated watching it. When they were taking him out on third down, it was like taking Bruce Smith out on third down. That was frustrating for me. I'm a fan now. You don't take one of the greatest pass-rushers of all-time out on third down."
Thomas didn't appreciate the way the Dolphins handled his exit after the 2007 season, either.
Shortly after Bill Parcells took over football operations and hired Ireland and head coach Tony Sparano, they released Thomas after a dozen highly decorated seasons.
Thomas said he had only one request as he cleaned out his locker, to say goodbye to Dolfans with a news conference at the team's facility. The request was denied.
"You've got to respect players that's been good to the game," Thomas said. "I don't like the organization to look bad that way."
The all-decade inside linebacker for the Miami Dolphins was a guest on Miami sports-radio station WQAM and tackled several topics about his former team with host Sid Rosenberg.
Thomas advised the Dolphins to sign Denver Broncos restricted free agent Brandon Marshall to an offer sheet and to bring back veteran pass-rusher Jason Taylor to avoid a leadership depletion like the New England Patriots suffered last year.
The Dolphins have needed a go-to receiver for years. Rosenberg asked Thomas what he would say if Bill Parcells approached him about Marshall.
"Do it now before anybody changes their mind," Thomas said per Palm Beach Post reporter Brian Biggane.
The Broncos placed a first-round tender on Marshall, tempting other teams to sign him. The Dolphins own the 12th pick of the draft.
"With Brandon Marshall it's about money," Thomas said. "If you pay the guy well, he's going to play hard. He even played hard last year. He's got a lot of pride, and he can be a little selfish, but good players are selfish. Look at a guy like Terrell [Owens]. Guys can go to extremes. But Brandon Marshall is a proven player. He's still young, and I feel he's best in the league right now."
Thomas claimed Marshall would make all of Miami's receivers better -- even Ted Ginn. Thomas emphasized that Marshall is a proven commodity, unlike someone like Oklahoma State receiver Dez Bryant, whom the Dolphins could draft instead.
Thomas also insisted the Dolphins need to bring back Taylor, his brother-in-law.
"You have to have that veteran leadership," Thomas said. "You just lost Joey Porter, just lost Jason Taylor, and trust me you need that blend, especially on defense. You need that experience. They re-signed Jason Ferguson, but being [suspended the first] eight weeks, I'm concerned about how they can keep that defensive line intact.
"Look at New England, what they did to their defense. They lost Mike Vrabel, they lost [Tedy] Bruschi, [Richard] Seymour, Rodney Harrison, and you see how they dropped off last year.
"Everybody talked about Tom Brady not being as good because of his injury. That had nothing to do with it. He had less opportunities. The defense is what won a lot of games for them in the past. So you need that blend."
Thomas retired last year because of an accumulation of concussions. He has pledged his brain to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University School of Medicine for research on the long-term impact of football-related head trauma.
He will tour training camps this summer to speak with players about the importance of being vigilant about concussion symptoms.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Former Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas is one of a growing number of NFL players vowing to donate their brains to research.
In a flash, he was a teenager again, a star tight end for La Salle High in Cincinnati. His quarterback had thrown an interception against Purcell. Hasselbeck went into hot pursuit. The rumbling ball carrier veered toward him, driving a knee into Hasselbeck's head.
A few moments later, Hasselbeck regained his senses and sat upright and surveyed the La Salle teammates and coaches that had gathered around him on Purcell's field.
Only he wasn't a teenager anymore. He was a New England Patriot in Schaefer Stadium. Or a Los Angeles Raider in the Coliseum. Or a New York Giant at the Meadowlands.
"Every time I was knocked out -- bang! -- I thought it was the first one in high school," Hasselbeck said. "I can be in the ninth year of the pros, and think I was on that high school field. What is that in my brain that gets triggered to make me think I'm 18 years old?"
Hasselbeck estimated his number of concussions "on the 20-plus side" before his nine-year NFL career was over in 1985. He traveled back in his cranial time machine on every nasty headshot.
He's worried those repeated brain injuries will impact his life.
"I get concerned when I read articles of guys killing themselves or being depressed or dementia or Alzheimer's," said Hasselbeck, a mostly healthy 54-year-old and a longtime Reebok executive. "That scares you. You don't want to see these guys falling apart in front of you."
The registry for what's known as "the brain bank" -- housed at the New England Veterans Administration in Bedford, Mass. -- is up to 250 players who want to further a cause that began when Chris Nowinski, a Harvard alum and former pro wrestler, got inquisitive about his future after suffering six concussions.
Nowinski and Dr. Ann McKee founded the center. Their findings from CSTE research -- that players are highly prone to clinical depression and early onset of Alzheimer's -- has triggered sweeping changes in the way the NFL views head trauma and could transform the way the game is played both on the practice field and on Sunday afternoons.
"We've made remarkable headway," Nowinski said. "I don't think I ever dreamed the NFL would agree there was a problem. For legal reasons, I just didn't think they'd admit it. It was the pathological research, the brains of the deceased players, pressure from the active and retired players who were courageous enough to stand up."
Nowinski's passion is collecting autographs and game-used equipment.
The autographs are signatures of players such as Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk, Arizona Cardinals receiver Sean Morey, former Miami Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas and Hall of Fame cornerback Mike Haynes; the game-used equipment he gets them to consign are their brains.
"Once I'm dead, I'm not going to need it anymore," said former Buffalo Bills guard Conrad Dobler. "I plan on being cremated. I always wonder what they do with all those parts.
"But if I'm going to be cremated anyway because I don't feel like laying in a casket and having worms eat my body for eternity. My brain will live forever to help some others, and to let the world know that I actually had one."
Nowinksi wrote the 2006 book "Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis from the NFL to Youth Leagues." About a month after the book was released, former Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters committed suicide. Nowinski convinced Waters' family to donate his brain for research, a seminal moment for the brain bank.
Waters' brain was examined by Dr. Bennett Omalu in Pittsburgh, and it resembled those of Mike Webster and Terry Long, former Pittsburgh Steelers who died young after bouts with depression and dementia.
"We started with guys who were disasters," Nowinski said. "Now we're moving on to guys who might or might not be impacted in varying degrees. But these are people who are committed and recognize the problem and want to be a part of the solution."
Nowinski's cause has reached a level of consciousness where players are approaching him to will their brains without him needing to deliver a sales pitch.
"I told him I would donate my brain," former Bills offensive lineman and SI.com columnist Ross Tucker said. "I was never diagnosed with a concussion, but I can remember at least four plays during my career where the collision was just different. When you play football for 18 years, you can tell when something's different.
"For 10 to 15 seconds after, I was thinking 'Wow. That was crazy. I don't know what happened there, but I don't like it.' "
The CSTE scored a major victory in December, when the league announced it would impose stricter guidelines on players returning from concussions and teamed up with the Center for Disease Control to produce a public-service announcement that urges youth coaches, players and parents to be educated on the dangers of head injuries.
"That showed me there was no going back," Nowinski said.
The next step is enacting rules that protect players from Pop Warner and up.
Nowinski referred to testimony Houston Texans guard Chester Pitts gave before Congress. Pitts declared he would forbid his son from playing football because it was too dangerous.
"That's kind of creepy that he's exposing himself to a violent game he wouldn't let his own son play in," Nowinski said. "That's a sign we need to change things."
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell appeared Sunday on "Face the Nation" and told host Bob Schieffer the league would consider eliminating the three-point stance. Nowinski, citing research that shows 75 percent of head shots occur in practice, raised the possibility of no-contact, helmet-less workouts.
"There always will be four downs," Nowinski said. "A touchdown will be worth six points, a field goal worth three points. But how we hit each other, how we collide has to change."
While Tucker dismissed abolishing the three-point stance as meaningful (linemen don't build up enough momentum in such a short space to make that type of contact significant), he lauded the NFL's decision last spring to eliminate the wedge on kickoff returns as a step in the right direction.
Players on return and coverage teams generally are the last 10 players who dress on game day, the most easily replaceable parts.
"How hard they run down there and how hard they hit that wedge is the difference between 650 grand and going back to Columbus, Georgia, to find a job for 12 bucks an hour," Tucker said. "If those were your options, you'd hit that wedge pretty damn hard, too."
Tucker also would like to see certain drills outlawed. He described what he and his Washington Redskins teammates called "the headache drill" in 2007. Offensive linemen would take on a linebacker at full speed, the frequent result being a helmet-on-helmet collision.
"We hated it," said Tucker, a Princeton alum who retired that year because of herniated discs in his neck and back. "I remember feeling my brain rattling around.
"I don't think it has truly impacted me, but there are times when I forget stuff that I shouldn't. I've always been known for having an amazing memory, but it just seems there's short-term stuff I don't remember sometimes.
"I'm not concerned about it, but there's probably something going on, and if I can help in any small way, I'm willing to do that. Guys are only going to get bigger, only going to get faster. Unless we do something, it's only going to get worse and worse."
Thomas was named to the NFL's All-Decade team Sunday. He played linebacker for 13 seasons. He attempted to make it 14 last year, but the Kansas City Chiefs cut him after he suffered another concussion in training camp.
"I would like to make sure the game of football survives," Thomas said in a story by Palm Beach Post reporter Hal Habib. "The scientific findings to date are clear that repetitive trauma to the head results in [chronic traumatic encephalopathy] in many athletes. I want to do my part to help the researchers understand this disease and to discover treatments and an eventual cure.
"This is not just about professional athletes who may know there are risks to the game. This is about making sure that the game is safe for all of those children playing the game today and in the future."Thomas was a hard-charging, overachieving tackle machine for the Dolphins. But that reputation gave way later in his career. The Dolphins released him after he missed most of 2007 with a concussion that was soon followed by residual affects exacerbated by a rear-end auto collision on his way home from a game.
Rather than think of a great player, many observers feared for Thomas' safety, knowing that one more concussion could be devastating for him.
"They labeled me with that, as prone for concussions," Thomas said after the Dolphins cut him and he joined the Dallas Cowboys in 2008. "Everybody just thinks I'm some guy out here that's punch drunk, running around."
Thomas was one of 19 active or retired players to join the Boston University registry. Others with AFC East ties include former Buffalo Bills offensive lineman Conrad Dobler, former New England Patriots cornerback Michael Haynes and Patriots tight end Don Hasselbeck.
Here’s the full report from the Associated Press. Hillenmeyer has had a vested interested in concussions since suffering one in the season opener against Green Bay in 2006. At the time, he said: “I’ve got my mom and girlfriend sending me 50 articles off the Internet about all the long-term effects of concussions. But that’s not something that I’m thinking about. I know the doctors wouldn’t let me play if they thought there was any greater risk of me getting another one than with anybody else out there.”
Other players who recently joined Hillenmeyer include Zach Thomas and Kyle Turley.
I've talked to enough people within the Cowboys' organization to know that Jones' son, Stephen, is the one who finally got through to his father. Jones, who wasn't inclined to release T.O. at the end of the '08 season, listened to several voices. But I'm told that Stephen stubbornly fought to convince his father that Romo couldn't flourish until T.O. was extracted from the locker room. And once T.O., Tank Johnson and Adam "Pacman" Jones were gone, the owner introduced us to his catchphrase of the offseason, a "Romo-friendly offense."
Against all odds and conventional wisdom, Jones retained Wade Phillips in the aftermath of a 44-6 beatdown in Philly. He soon announced that Phillips would be adding "defensive coordinator" to his job title, which is probably the way it should have been in the first place. Phillips made too many excuses for his players during his first two seasons and didn't hold them accountable at crucial moments along the way. But no one ever doubted the man's credentials as a defensive coach. Phillips' hands are all over a defense that has been dominant over the past four games and held opponents to 250 points during the regular-season, the second-lowest total in the league.
He also helped himself in the personnel department when he spoke on behalf of free-agent linebacker Keith Brooking, a player he coached when he was with the Falcons. The Falcons had a great young linebacker in Curtis Lofton and decided to move forward without the 33-year-old Brooking. The Cowboys' scouting department knew that Brooking was bigger than Zach Thomas and thought he'd be a much better fit at inside linebacker.
Thomas played well for the first six or seven games of '08, but his production started to fall off midway through the season. He never felt comfortable in Phillips' 3-4 and both parties were ready to move on. Brooking showed up for the Cowboys' offseason program and immediately started turning heads. Phillips said the linebacker tried to win every single sprint during conditioning drills and younger players such as Anthony Spencer and Bobby Carpenter began to notice Brooking's uncommon work ethic.
The Cowboys also added former Jaguars safety Gerald Sensabaugh during free agency. He solidified an area that had been in a state of flux since Darren Woodson retired because of a back injury in 2004. Sensabaugh has been a better player than Pro Bowler Ken Hamlin, who hasn't lived up to his big contract.
"When all hell breaks loose, you want Sensabaugh on your side," said one highly ranked member of the organization who asked not to be identified. "He's highly, highly respected by pretty much everyone in the organization. There's a toughness and a swagger to his approach that other guys just feed off of."
Of course, one of the biggest changes this season was the meteoric rise of Miles Austin. He's a younger, faster version of Owens -- without all the drama. And if you ever hear a scout say they knew Austin could be this good, they're lying.
Even when Romo was moving the ball down the field last season, it was always in the back of his mind that he needed to keep T.O. happy. I'm not sure that any quarterback can have long-term success with that type of scenario, and Donovan McNabb and Jeff Garcia would probably have my back on that statement.
With his words, Jerry Jones will still tell you that locker room chemistry is overrated. But his actions say something else.
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