SARASOTA, Fla. – Rashad Johnson walked into the fourth-floor suite at the Ritz-Carlton hotel and threw out an almost sheepish grin.
On Thursday afternoon, after the obligatory explanation of his recent, peculiarly gruesome injury, the Arizona Cardinals' starting safety laughed.
How many times in the past five days had he been asked to explain what happened?
"Hundreds of times," he said, laughing again. "Literally."
Johnson was wearing a black T-shirt that bore the credo "Earned Not Given." This week he paid that price. He left a considerable amount of his blood on the field Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. And a fingernail and a mass of ripped-up skin in the middle finger of a bloody left-handed glove in a trash can in the bowels of the stadium, which felt weirdly reminiscent of Curt Schilling's famous sock.
Last Sunday, the Cardinals lost to the Saints 31-7, but there was more carnage, too. Starting outside linebackers Lorenzo Alexander (fractured left tibia) and Sam Acho (Lisfranc injury to right foot) were placed on injured reserve and are gone for the season. Johnson might play Sunday at Tampa Bay.
So why is it that Johnson's relatively minor injury was so fascinating to football fans?
He tweeted three gruesome images of the compromised digit. And, perhaps not coincidentally, over the next three days Johnson was invited to appear on "The Dan Patrick Show," "The Jim Rome Show" and ESPN's "SportsCenter." He's also the subject of a "Sunday NFL Countdown" feature. The story of his injury, on a busy sports Tuesday, was the most-trafficked item on ESPN.com, receiving more than 600,000 page views.
"I think it's just such a unique thing that happened," said Johnson, who added that he had thought long and hard about this. "Guys tear their ACL or rip their biceps or do a lot of things – but most of those things can be repaired and put back into place.
"But losing the top portion of my finger, you know, there's no replacing it, there's no growing it back."
Maybe it's the same reason people are compelled to slow down and look when they pass an auto accident on the highway. Maybe it's because even everyday folks can relate to a damaged digit. Johnson said he had received all kinds of stories via Twitter of mangled fingers due to lawnmowers, closing doors and even inept shelf work.
Johnson's teammate, cornerback Patrick Peterson, shook his head.
"I don't know," Peterson said. "He's the famous Rashad Johnson, known for losing the tip of his finger. It's getting bigger and bigger each day."
How it happened, exactly, remains something of a mystery.
It was just before halftime when Johnson was on the field for punt coverage, working his way down the field toward Saints return man Darren Sproles.
"I see the protection, and I set it," Johnson said. "I saw the returner was going to set up the return to the left side. I engaged him to keep him from going that way. He tries to hit up inside and I come off the block to make the tackle, and once I get up I feel the pain in my hand."
How does something that catastrophic happen without your knowledge?
"Just the adrenaline that you have when you play the game," Johnson said. "You're so fired up, you're so into it, you're so zoned out. There's even times when you're playing a game that you don't even notice the fans."
Johnson did not return to the game. The game was tied 7-7 when he was injured, and it quickly got out of hand in the second half.
In a New Orleans hospital, doctors shaved down the protruding bone and pulled the skin over the top and stitched it up. Now Johnson has three left-handed fingers roughly the same size.
On Thursday, he was wearing a large white gauze bandage that was so big it looked like one of those foam fingers at the stadium. He didn't practice in pads Wednesday or Thursday, but he said he thinks he'll be on the field in Tampa.
"Yes, in my gut, I think I'll play," Johnson said. "But it will really come down to getting cleared by the doctors."
Maybe Johnson's right. Perhaps our fascination is rooted in the idea that there is about one-quarter-inch of his person that will never be recovered.
"It's something out of the ordinary," Peterson said, "being a football player and losing a finger on the field."
While the injury is gruesome, it fortunately isn't serious. In fact, the Cardinals tweeted a photo of a prototype foam finger with a severed fingertip. Mark Dalton, the team's vice president of media relations, was asked whether the item would be manufactured or sold.
"No," he said. "Just having a little fun with it."
Ronnie Lott, the Hall of Fame defensive back, is the example that immediately came to many minds. Toward the end of the 1985 season, while playing for the San Francisco 49ers, he crashed into Dallas Cowboys running back Timmy Newsome. The top part of Lott's left pinky was shattered, but he played on, and the 49ers earned a wild-card berth. Lott played with the finger taped in the playoffs against the Giants, but the 49ers lost. When doctors told him bone-graft surgery to fully repair the finger might force him to sit out the beginning of the '86 season, Lott declined; he told them to take the top of his finger off so he wouldn't miss any time.
On Tuesday, Lott called Johnson.
"He talked to me about how people don't really understand what we do," Johnson said. "He talked to me about fear. He said a lot of people live in fear, but people of our mindset don't live in fear because fear only holds us back. When you live without fear, you can move onto the next level.
"You just move forward from it and continue to be great."
After the last question had been asked, after the lights and the cameras had been shut down, Johnson, still sitting in his chair, asked if he could add something. The cameras and lights came back on and this is what he said:
"I'm a man of faith, and I believe that there's always a plan behind everything. The thing that I can control now is just get myself healthy and back on the field.
"I just wanted to share that word that you can push through anything that may look like a setback, but it's always something that's going to set you up for something even greater."