Neck Injuries a Disturbing Reality

After Kevin Everett, center, injured his neck, doctors said it was unlikely he would walk again. Since then, he has regained movement in his extremities.
After Kevin Everett, center, injured his neck, doctors said it was unlikely he would walk again. Since then, he has regained movement in his extremities. (By Jamie Germano -- Associated Press)
By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 28, 2007

Linebacker Omar Gaither stood in front of his locker in the Philadelphia Eagles' locker room early this season, pulling on his gear to head out to practice. Moments earlier, a chilling replay of the tackle that left Buffalo Bills tight end Kevin Everett with a life-threatening spinal cord injury on the NFL's opening weekend played on a nearby television. But Gaither didn't notice and neither, it seemed, did any of his teammates.

They didn't really want to notice, preferring not to think about what could happen to them in their violent sport.

"When you see it happen, you do think about it," Gaither said. "But you have to push it away. You just pray it doesn't happen to you. You don't talk about it. You know it can happen. It's there in the back of your mind. But that's where you have to keep it. If you're thinking about that, dwelling on it, you're going to play tentative. And that's when you can really get hurt."

The early weeks of the NFL season have provided vivid reminders of the risks of the game. Everett underwent four hours of emergency surgery on the night he was hurt while making a tackle on a kickoff against the Denver Broncos. His doctors initially said it was unlikely that Everett would walk again, but they've offered a more hopeful prognosis as he has regained movement in his legs and arms. He has been moved from the intensive care unit of a Buffalo hospital to a hospital in Houston, to be closer to his home as he continues his rehabilitation.

Last Sunday, Houston Texans defensive tackle Cedric Killings suffered a fractured vertebra in his neck while blocking on a kickoff return. He initially had no feeling in his arms and legs but regained movement and stood up next to his hospital bed Monday, prompting a round of applause by his doctors and optimism that he would walk out of the hospital.

Paralyzing spinal cord injuries are nothing new to the NFL, where images of late New England Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley being paralyzed by a collision with Oakland Raiders safety Jack Tatum during a 1978 game and of Detroit Lions guard Mike Utley being paralyzed during a 1991 game against the Los Angeles Rams remain haunting years later. New York Jets defensive lineman Dennis Byrd was paralyzed in a 1992 game but later regained the ability to walk.

Every offseason, representatives of the league's competition committee and the NFL Players Association discuss possible rule changes or prospective breakthroughs in equipment technology that might make the game safer. Players are warned repeatedly by coaches and signs in locker rooms to "see what you hit," to reduce the possibility of being hurt while delivering a spearing blow with the top of the helmet.

But, say the sport's leaders and players, there's no way to make football completely safe or eliminate the possibility of catastrophic spinal cord injuries.

"Freak injuries are going to happen," Eagles veteran safety Brian Dawkins said.

Kickoffs seem particularly hazardous, with players getting lengthy running starts before hurtling themselves toward opponents. Both the Everett and Killings injuries occurred on kickoffs. Former Carolina Panthers defensive lineman Al Lucas died of a presumed spinal cord injury suffered making a tackle on a kickoff during an Arena Football League game in 2005.

"Kickoff coverage, kickoff returns -- guys are at full speed," Gaither said. "You get a 40-yard running start and you go bust a wedge. That's dangerous. When they made the game what it is, I'm not sure they knew guys would be this big and this fast one day."

But neither the Stingley nor Utley injuries occurred on a kickoff, and Ozzie Newsome, the general manager of the Baltimore Ravens and a member of the competition committee, said he's not convinced that kickoffs are more dangerous than other plays.

"Is it any more dangerous than a quarterback getting hit from the blind side or a receiver getting hit while going over the middle? I don't know," Newsome, a Hall of Fame tight end for the Cleveland Browns during his playing days, said during a telephone interview. "There are some instances where a player is not really protected, and we look at them every year to try to eliminate some things, especially when it comes to helmet-to-helmet hits.

"But there is risk in this sport. The athletes are getting so much bigger and faster than they were when I played. The collisions are getting so much more violent."

League and union officials say they have stressed the quality and immediacy of the care that a player receives after suffering a spinal cord injury on the field. Thom Mayer, the medical director of the NFL Players Association, said that Everett's chances of survival and outlook for long-term improvement were greatly enhanced by the quality of care that he received on the field before being transported to the hospital. The medical team in Buffalo had conducted a run-through about a week earlier about what to do in case of a spinal cord injury, according to Mayer, and used an experimental technique of cooling Everett's body to try to minimize the impact of his injury.

"Some neurosurgeons would tell you it didn't make any difference," Mayer said. "Some would tell you it did. At worst, it did no harm."


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