The lesson of Eric LeGrand
The sight is still sickening no matter how many times one sees it. Rutgers defensive lineman Eric LeGrand flying to the ball, dropping his head, delivering a devastating highlight-film blow, and then falling to the ground motionless, paralyzed from the neck down.
The images have been in a perpetual state of replay since they unfolded in Saturday afternoon's Rutgers-Army game at the Meadowlands, from news programs to YouTube to the minds of anyone who was there to witness it in person. Every replay, the viewer waits for the just-turned 20-year-old to pop back up -- but it never happens.
As college football practices resumed Monday, coaches around the nation were using those images and LeGrand's story to underline a cry that had already received renewed emphasis over the last two seasons.
"You just keep screaming to your players, 'Shoulder down, head up!' and hope that it becomes second nature to them during contact," says West Virginia head coach Bill Stewart. "When a player, any player, suffers an injury like that, we all hurt inside. What we do is fun. Football is fun. But then we're all reminded of how dangerous it really is."
You just keep screaming to your players, 'Shoulder down, head up!' and hope that it becomes second nature to them during contact." -- West Virginia coach Bill Stewart
All levels of football have been receiving an unwelcome reminder over the last half-decade, a period during which the combined number of head and neck injuries throughout high school, college and pro football has spiked. In 1990, new, stricter head-down tackling rules were introduced throughout the game, particularly high school and college. And from 1991-98 the per-year number of such injuries stayed in the single-digit range, rising to 10 in 1999 and then dropping again. But in 2004 the total rose to 13. In '08 it hit 14, marking four out of seven years of 10 or more cervical cord injuries.
From 2004-09 there were only three incidences in all of college football, but LeGrand's injury brought 2010's tally up to three this year, at just the halfway point of the season. Including high school, there have been eight total and LeGrand's is the fifth to result in paralysis.
Rules changes and, sadly, incidents like LeGrand's, typically spark big improvements in those numbers. The 1990 NCAA helmet-contact rules revisions, when facemask-first tackles were added to what was considered "spearing," were in no small way a reaction to the paralysis of Ole Miss player Chucky Mullins, who became a quadriplegic in '89 after a head-first tackle of Vanderbilt fullback Brad Gaines.
In 2008 the NCAA once again tightened up its rules concerning helmet contact penalties, amending what already addressed spearing (punishing the opponent using the helmet and/or facemask) and "butt blocking" (using the facemask to hit an opponent at the line). Now the rules more specifically refer to the crown of the helmet as well as initiating contact or targeting "a defenseless opponent above the shoulders."
Prior to this season, college officiating crews were told to enforce those rules more aggressively than ever before. "The law has been laid down from the NCAA as well as the coaches," the ACC's coordinator of football officiating told the media in August. "Anything that can result in an injury to a student-athlete, particularly head and neck related, are to be penalized early and without discussion."
At first blush, head-down tackling rules and their enforcement seem as though they've been put in place to protect the player being hit.
In reality, they are needed to protect the hitter.
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