Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Brentson Buckner saw a television replay of the hit that fatally injured his former teammate, Al Lucas, in an Arena Football League game Sunday and said he saw nothing unusual for the violent sport that he plays.
"I watched it, and it seemed like the same old thing you see all the time," Buckner said by telephone yesterday. "I've seen harder licks before, harder collisions. You look at it and you know what kind of powerful guy he is, and you don't think anything bad should have happened to him."
(Jon Soohoo, Los Angeles Avengers--AP)
But Lucas, a 26-year-old lineman playing for the Los Angeles Avengers as he tried to work his way back to the NFL, did not get up after trying to make a tackle on a kickoff return early in a game at Staples Center. He suffered what the team called an apparent spinal cord injury and was pronounced dead at the California Hospital Medical Center in Los Angeles after efforts to revive him at the arena and hospital failed.
An autopsy was scheduled to be conducted yesterday, and the Los Angeles County coroner's office declined to specify a cause of death, pending further tests.
"I am just speechless," said Lucas's Georgia-based agent, Virgil Adams. "I've been in a fog ever since it happened. We're still finding out what happened. I don't know what to say. I've seen the replay several times, and it just looks like he suffers a blow to the head. But it doesn't look like it's anything out of the ordinary, and there was nothing going on with Al medically before this incident. We're still basically clueless. We'll just wait for the autopsy and try to figure out what happened."
Despite the violent nature of football, death during games is rare. Detroit Lions receiver Chuck Hughes collapsed on the field and died from a heart attack during a game in 1971. Two NFL players, Washington Redskins tackle Dave Sparks and Chicago Cardinals tackle Stan Mauldin died from heart attacks after games in the 1940s and '50s. Two professional players, Kansas City Chiefs running back Stone Johnson and New York Titans tackle Howard Glenn, died in the 1960s after suffering broken necks during games.
"I try to not have it be the focal point in my mind, but I realize that it's a violent sport and serious injuries do occur," Buffalo Bills cornerback Troy Vincent said. "It's not that they can occur. They will occur."
Vincent is president of the NFL Players Association, which has organized the Arena League players' union. He said yesterday that while the union is constantly studying possible equipment and rule changes to make the game safer, he believes that the sport is about as safe as it can be.
"When you think of the number of players who play this game and the number of spinal cord injuries that happen, there are relatively few," Vincent said by telephone. "It is a violent sport that we choose as men, and that we as parents allow our children to play.
"How can you prevent it? You can't. The player has to play. You need to teach people and educate people and coach people about the right way to play and the proper technique to tackle. But that happens constantly, and then you get into a game and there are a thousand things going on and you have to make split-second decisions. Obviously we will talk about doing everything we can to make our sport as safe as possible. But I don't know how much more you can do."
Buckner said: "You know there's the possibility of getting hurt. But your mind-set is, if you do everything right the way you've been taught your whole life, you won't get hurt. You never go out there with the mind-set, 'I could die out here on this field.'
"The people that police this game do a good job. We're all taught the proper way to tackle from the time we're little kids, hundreds and hundreds of times, over and over. It's just that the athlete of today has pretty much outgrown the technology. You can only make a helmet so good and so strong, and now you have guys who weigh over 300 pounds and can run like a running back. You're going to have some powerful collisions."
Lucas, listed at 6 feet 1 and 300 pounds, spent the 2000 and 2001 seasons with the Panthers after playing at Troy State. He was hoping for another NFL shot while playing in the Arena League, in which players typically earn $50,000 to $80,000 per season, and working as an assistant coach at his former high school in Macon, Ga., in the offseason. He is survived by his wife, DeShonda, and daughter Mariah. His father, David, is a member of the Georgia House of Representatives, and his mother, Elaine, is on the Macon city council. His older brother, Lenny, plays for the Macon Knights in Arena League 2. The AFL players' union announced yesterday that it was establishing a trust fund for Lucas's family.
"He was always a fun-loving guy," Buckner said. "He was always laughing and joking. In training camp, everyone would be tired and it would be quiet, and you'd hear someone coming down the hall being loud and telling jokes, and it would be him. When I heard about it, knowing Al and knowing what kind of person he is and knowing he's married and has a little girl, it was heartbreaking to me. That play could have happened to any one of us that plays this game. You can't play this game afraid. You have to play this game 100 miles an hour."