Low-Down, Dirty Football

The Way I See It...

By Andrew Mason
Content Editor

July 7, 1997

TAMPA, Fla. - Picture the scene...

It's late in the first quarter of the Storm's June 7 game in Albany. The Firebirds lead 17-13, but Tampa Bay has the ball, albeit deep in their own territory. QB Peter Tom Willis gets off a pass, but gets hammered on a late hit by Firebird FB/LB Leroy Thompson.

Thompson jumped off the turf, lowered his head and barreled the crown of the helmet squarely into Willis' chest. Willis went flying to the ground and couldn't get up, being wheeled off the field on a stretcher. He suffered what turned out to be cracked ribs and continues to play through pain a month later. In spite of the fact that Willis released the football on a pass before Thompson jumped up to meet him, the officials did not see fit to call a penalty of any kind.

Fast-forward 28 days to the Storm's game at Texas.

Stevie Thomas had just caught a beautiful 21-yard touchdown pass from Willis to give the Storm a 30-25 lead early in the fourth quarter. Coach Tim Marcum made the decision to go for two, and on the conversion attempt, Willis again found Thomas. The ball found his hands, but at the same time, Texas DS Demetrius Martin lowered his head like Thompson, and slammed the crown of his helmet into Thomas' face mask. Jarred, Thomas lost the ball and the conversion failed.

Fortunately, Thomas was OK. Instead of being wheeled off, he ran after any Texas player in sight. And I couldn't blame him. If he'd gotten an eight-yard penalty for his reaction, it wouldn't have mattered, because his point is valid. That hit was flat-out wrong. Texas should have received an eight-yard penalty for spearing and perhaps a fine later in the week.

The hit was the most dangerous kind of all---leading with the helmet into the face-mask covered chin of another player. That's how concussions are made---ask Troy Aikman or Steve Young about that. Even a face mask that comes down below one's chin can not offer protection for the jarring effect on the head that goes along with that kind of hit.

It's very simple, really---every Riddell football helmet I've seen carries with it a warning telling the wearer not to lead with the helmet. Not only is it dangerous to the player getting hit, but it is dangerous to the tackler himself. Former Citadel linebacker Marc Buoniconti, son of former Miami Dolphin and Boston Patriot LB Nick Buoniconti, is paralyzed for life from the neck down because he led with his helmet on a tackle.

The Thompson hit on Willis prompted Marcum to pen a letter to AFL Director of Operations Jerry Trice, who himself is a former Marcum assistant in 1992 with Detroit. Along with the letter, Marcum sent a tape of the hit. Of course, it did no good---Thompson went unpunished.

This business has got to stop. The NFL has tried, putting fines on players even when the referees don't make the call for a late hit or spearing. Some fans might remember Chicago Bears LB Vinson Smith plowing head-first into St. Louis Rams QB Chris Miller during a September 1995 game. No flag was thrown, but since Smith jumped off the Busch Stadium Astroturf and led with his helmet into Miller's chest, he was fined $10,000.

But $10,000 is hardly going to make an impact on NFL players whose salaries start at $150,000 and grow exponentially from there. How about a system similar to that of the NFL's drug testing policy? First offense, you get a warning and, in the case of the hits, a fine of one week's salary. Second offense, a four-game suspension without pay. Third offense, a year's suspension.

The AFL could offer a similar plan based on weekly pay. Here's a chance for the league to be a leader in the game of football, to enact a plan that could end up serving as a motto for other leagues and football organizations.

Note that we're not trying to legislate special protective rules for quarterbacks here. A signal-caller is just another player and can be hit like anyone else. What the AFL, and football on every level needs, is a return to good, solid, fundamental, clean and heads-up tackling. The injuries that result from this are unnecessary, and unless there is something done to police these dirty hits, they will continue on all levels of the game from sandlot to the NFL.

And that's the way I see it.

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