Keeping head up is key to tackling issue

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CONYERS, Ga. - Chad Frazier has seen it hundreds of times: Two guys run into each other at full speed, and one of them doesn't get up right away.

Buffalo Bills reserve tight end Kevin Everett suffered a severe injury to his spine after making a tackle with his head down. He is expected to walk again.  Associated Press
Associated Press
Buffalo Bills reserve tight end Kevin Everett suffered a severe injury to his spine after making a tackle with his head down. He is expected to walk again.

The crowd falls silent. The other players drop to a knee, whispering a prayer and trying to shake the very sobering reality that it could be any of them stretched out on the ground. Everyone strains their eyes, hoping to glimpse even the tiniest sign of movement.

As the head football coach at Heritage High School in suburban Atlanta, Frazier knows most players eventually get up. Still, he always frets that one won't.

"Every time there's a collision and one of my kids falls to the ground, the worst goes through my mind," Frazier said. "It may only be his pride is hurt because he just got whipped. But if they don't move right away, the worst goes through my mind."

That worst-case scenario played out in Buffalo last weekend. Kevin Everett charged in to make a tackle on a kickoff return, but he appeared to duck his head a split-second before making contact, leaving himself with a catastrophic spinal-cord injury.

At first, doctors feared the Bills tight end would never walk again. In fact, his very life was in danger. In the following days, Everett showed encouraging signs of movement, improving the odds that he'll live something of a normal life, even though his football career is surely over.

Whatever the outcome, Everett's case demonstrates the enormous risks that all football players face, especially when they give in to the natural tendency to look down just before a collision.

Think of it this way: What would a motorist instinctively do when his car is about to run into something? Duck, of course. But that's the worst mistake a football player can make.

"It's a technique that is not easily mastered, and it's very easily done wrong," said Pierson Prioleau, a ninth-year safety with the Washington Redskins. "And, trust me, when you turn the game film on, 90 percent of the time you're going to see it done wrong. But 99.9 percent of the time, nobody has to pay for it injury wise."

When someone does, the price can be enormously high.

Last year alone, the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research logged 10 spinal-cord cases on the gridiron. Since 1977, at least 269 sandlot, high school, college and pro players have gone down with that most feared of injuries, the group reports.

Marc Buoniconti, son of NFL Hall of Famer Nick Buoniconti, has been paralyzed from the neck down since making a tackle for The Citadel in 1985. He and his father now work closely with the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, one of the world's top neurological research centers.

"It was ironic in a way," the younger Buoniconti said. "Football gave us our greatest joy and our worst sorrow."

Everett might be one of the lucky ones, though Buoniconti disputed those who call it a miracle. He pointed to the quick care Everett received from medical personnel at the stadium, along with advances such as "hypothermia therapy" that were developed by the Miami Project and other programs.

The Bills player's body was flushed with cold fluids to lower his temperature, a process that reduces the inflammation around the spinal column. Basically, it's a much more advanced version of a player putting ice on a sore knee.

"That has been a real shot in the arm for our research," Buoniconti said. "Now we have to continue to work to allow people all over this country, all over the world, to utilize it like Kevin did. It should be protocol for anyone who has a spinal-cord injury."

Even with the increased emphasis on safety and improved equipment, there hasn't been the sort of decline in catastrophic injuries that one might expect, according to the national research center.

In fact, after reporting single-digit case numbers for all but one year from 1991-2002, there have been at least 10 spinal cord injuries in three of the past four years (the exception was 2005, with only three cases).

Prioleau, the Redskins safety, said at least two times every game he gets up from a tackle with his neck stinging - and has to remind himself to use proper technique the next time.

"You're like 'whew,' but it happens all the time and you never really think about it," he said. "It's why you say your prayers before the game, you say them after the game, and you continue to play."


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