Violence At a Price

Baltimore's Willis McGahee (23) had to be carted off on a stretcher after this hit late in the game by Pittsburgh's Ryan Clark after a reception.
Baltimore's Willis McGahee (23) had to be carted off on a stretcher after this hit late in the game by Pittsburgh's Ryan Clark after a reception. (By Julie Jacobson -- Associated Press)
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By Mike Wise
Monday, January 19, 2009

PITTSBURGH As Willis McGahee lay motionless, as Ray Lewis and other players knelt to pray, as the cart with the stretcher motored out and a concerned hush fell over Heinz Field, nothing mattered anymore.

All the mano-a-mano buildup, the hyperbole centering on two violent teams competing for a Super Bowl berth, ceased. For a few frightening minutes, it was preempted by the thought that an NFL player might be paralyzed on the field of the AFC championship game.

Looking on as medical personnel surrounded the fallen player, the Baltimore Ravens weren't worried about losing the seminal game of their season as much as possibly losing a teammate -- McGahee, a victim of the same kind of pad-popping hit glorified by a league, its network partners and, yes, us -- the game-day-obsessed nation.

Steelers-Ravens represented the rugged best and unsightly worst of the NFL on Sunday night, and the play in the final minutes of a vicious game -- three players suffered concussions and no one left the field unscathed -- will further serve to polarize the masses.

If ever a parent worried for a child's safety in this sport, this was the game to confirm every fear. You see the replay of Ryan Clark lowering his shoulder and helmet at warp speed as he collides with McGahee, his body jarring violently, his neck sickeningly snapping back like a crash-test dummy, and you can almost hear thousands of parents across America: "That's it, you're not going to play. Soccer, baseball, basketball -- anything but football."

They're right behind the same people, of course, who exclaimed: "Great hit! That's how you put a hurt on somebody."

Pittsburgh and Baltimore played one of the most painful and menacing physical ordeals in NFL history, a vertebrae-crunching, brain-rattling, helmet-to-helmet affair that was billed as a conference championship game and nearly ended as an indictment on the these bruising, maim-the-other-team styles. Instead, the immediate news was positive: A team spokesman said McGahee is neurologically intact and that he would stay overnight in a Pittsburgh hospital.

"I started getting a little emotional when I saw him down there and the cart was coming out," began Ben Roethlisberger, before adding, "That's the nature of this rivalry."

Beautiful. Great.

Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and the ruffians came all this way, to the crest of playing for it all, to discover a hideous truth:

Contrary to their own belief, they're not the most menacing, unmerciful, I-will-knock-you-out football team in the National Football League. That belongs to the guys who made the medics come on the field for their teammate who couldn't move.

Oh, Baltimore is brutally tough. No team weathers the physical and psychological punishment the Ravens did here Sunday night and manages to make the AFC championship a taut thriller in the final minutes.

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