Josh Norman says a prayer. Then he leaves it up to God.
Before every game, the Washington Redskins cornerback asks for protection before he takes the playing field. Each week, the ritual is the same. And he wouldn't want it any other way.
To survive the potential dangers and the ever-present brutality of NFL life, players must suspend reality for four quarters at a time.
"When you go out there on the field, you ask for cover and you go to work," Norman said. "If I see a play, shoot, I'm going to get it. Consequences be the consequences."
His smile gave way to a wince as he peeled his sweaty practice jersey over his shoulders and head.
"This is what we signed up for," Norman said. "If you don't want to do it, don't play. Ain't nobody forcing you. It's your right."
His comments came just two days after Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered a spinal injury during Pittsburgh's 23-20 win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday night. The collision — Shazier's headfirst hit on Bengals wide receiver Josh Malone — didn't faze Norman. And the sight of the 25-year-old Shazier being carted off the field didn't prompt the Redskins defensive back to question his own longevity either.
"You know the risk you take when you step on the field each and every time," Norman said. "That's a play where he went at him, I think, with the crown of his head. They tell us not to tackle like that. . . . Prayers go out to him and his family and his recovery. It's severe. . . . Hopefully everything will go well."
Shazier underwent spinal stabilization surgery Wednesday in Pittsburgh.
The news of Shazier's surgery was being broadcast on a muted TV inside the Redskins' locker room when players returned from the practice field in Ashburn. But the update didn't appear to rattle them. Linebacker Zach Brown said he saw the replays of the Shazier hit. But it wasn't the viciousness of the game that stood out to him.
"He needed to keep his head up," Brown said. "It was scary to see him like that because last year I played with him in the Pro Bowl and he's a cool guy. He was having a good season, too. When he made the tackle, I just knew it was bad. . . . When your head is down, there's only one way your spine can go."
Redskins tight end Vernon Davis chose not to watch the collision. "I know what happened. But as far as seeing it? Nah. When things like that happen, I try to stay out of it," Davis said. "That can happen to me. It can happen to anyone, God forbid. I try to be more in prayer than focus on what actually happened."
At any moment, on any given Sunday, a player's season — or career — can come to an end. But the 12-year veteran said he would rather think about what football has afforded him, not what it might cost him.
"When people ask me what I went to school for, I tell them, football. I went to school to play football," said Davis, a D.C. native and former All-Met at Dunbar High. "My goal was always to make it to the NFL because the way I grew up, that was the only way for me. I wanted to make a way for my family and go on and do some great things.
"When you enjoy something and you love it, it really doesn't matter what could happen. It's our joy. It's our excitement. It's what we do to get away from other things."
On the field, Norman often operates as if he isn't from this world. He doesn't have much of a choice. For the game's truly elite players, a level of selflessness and recklessness is required that is unfathomable to most. If you thought Shazier's injury would be a reality check for a player such as Norman, think again.
"When I come here, I'm on planet Mars or planet Jupiter. And when I leave here, I'm back to Earth. 'Cause my rules don't apply to yours when I'm here," Norman said. "Why we do things and how we roll don't apply to your world when we're in here. And if you don't step up and you don't elevate and raise your bar up to that level, you'll be right back on Earth doing the same thing everybody else is doing.
"So when I come here, I'm on Mars, I'm on Jupiter, I'm on Saturn just finding my spot, just finding my niche, trying to be the best, and I'm trying to take over that area [on the field] where I'm at. And then when I leave work and get in my truck, I'm back in the real world."
The risks of the job — and the pain threshold required to play the game — are just part of the everyday calculus of playing in the NFL.
Said Brown: "Most guys are out there playing with broken bones, torn ligaments and stuff. It's hard, man. People don't understand. It's like a little car wreck every time you hit someone."
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