Advertisement

They’re Tackling Bigger Problems : Football: Neck injuries, sometimes resulting in permanent paralysis, are an inescapable reality of the game.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There are seven cervical vertebrae in the neck. Start at the top--C-1, as it is known--and slide your fingers over each bony bump until you reach the gap between C-4 and C-5, which should be just about halfway down the length of the neck. Now imagine a force great enough to cause those two vertebrae to collide, effectively crushing the spinal cord and permanently rendering you a quadriplegic.

If you can mentally create such a feeling, you feel like Allen Moore, a 17-year-old linebacker from Northeast Lauderdale (Miss.) High School, who severed his spinal cord while making a tackle during a Sept. 22 game. Not long ago, Moore tried to speak to his mother as she sat at his hospital bedside, but couldn’t because of the tracheotomy tube placed down his throat. So he mouthed the words. Essie Moore understood.

“It’s going to be all right,” he said. “I’m going to be all right.”

If only she could believe him.

Advertisement

Let your fingers linger over C-4 and C-5. In an eerie coincidence, they are the same two that were fractured and dislocated when 20-year-old Chucky Mullins, a University of Mississippi defensive back, rammed the crown of his helmet into the back of a Vanderbilt receiver during an Oct. 28 game at Oxford. Two other vertebrae were also broken on impact. The surgeon who later performed a five-hour operation on the now-paralyzed Mullins likened the spinal damage to that of an explosion.

Mullins has since seen a replay of the hit several times. After each viewing, his face remained emotionless. Except once. That’s when the nurses who care for Mullins knew his tear ducts worked all too well.

Move the hand up to the gap between C-3 and C-4. There, in the tiny valley between the two vertebrae, you can find the reason why the NFL career of Buffalo Bill defensive back Derrick Burroughs, 27, came to a premature end last month when he reluctantly announced his retirement. On Sept. 24, while playing against the Houston Oilers at the Astrodome, which is known throughout the league as “The House of Pain,” Burroughs crumpled to the ground after making what he thought was a routine tackle. His neck had been pushed forward, unnaturally so, causing his limbs to go numb.

A half-hour later, the feeling had returned to his arms and legs, and with it, the sobering realization that he might never again play the game he loved. On Nov. 15, Burroughs announced his retirement in a brief, heartfelt speech. He now says the Buffalo front office gave him no option, except to quit. Team physicians insist, however, that Burroughs should be glad he can even point an angry finger at the Bills, such was the seriousness of his injury.

Advertisement

Perhaps Burroughs should speak with former New England Patriot wide receiver Darryl Stingley, 38, who can describe the view of life from a wheelchair. It is a vantage point experienced ever since Stingley’s spinal cord was crushed during an Aug. 12, 1978, exhibition game against the Oakland Raiders.

One of Stingley’s best friends is Kenneth Jennings, a senior at Simeon High in south Chicago. Jennings’ neck snapped while attempting a tackle on the opening kickoff of an Oct. 8, 1988 game. But while his body is confined to a wheelchair, Jennings’ mind roams free, full of optimism.

“He’s the one keeping our spirits up,” said his mother, Lemmie. “He told us, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be back.’ You know, he could have died. But he’s still alive. There must be a reason for it.”

And then there is Ram safety Vincent Newsome, who missed the final 10 games of the 1988 season because of a neck injury that left him so weak after a tackle that he couldn’t lift himself from the Anaheim Stadium turf. Racked with pain, curled in a fetal position, Newsome waited until team trainers helped him off the field.

Eventually, the injury was diagnosed as a herniated disk. Newsome was banished promptly to the injured reserve list and told to rest and rehabilitate his neck. When he returned to the lineup this year, all seemed fine. His neck was stronger, his position secure.

But truth be known, the memory of the pain, the possibility of paralysis never has been purged from Newsome’s thoughts. Despite assurances of Ram physicians, Newsome occasionally wrestles with the consequences of his decision to continue playing.

Six men, all young and all linked by the injury that terrifies. Mothers fear it. Team doctors and trainers dread it. Players try not to think about it.

But the possibility of neck injuries is difficult to ignore, mostly because the human body wasn’t designed to accommodate the fierce, primal nature of football, an unforgiving game that promises only four things: a winner, a loser, joy and anguish.

Advertisement

In their own private ways, each of the six players is all too familiar with promise No. 4.

According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at the University of North Carolina, 116 players--sandlot (3), professional (2), high school (96) and college (15)--suffered permanent cervical cord injuries resulting in total disability between 1977-1988. So while sports medicine specialists explain that the knees are the most vulnerable to a football injury, it is the neck that is most vulnerable to tragedy. Tear a knee ligament in a game and maybe you walk with a limp 10 years later. Fracture the spinal cord, which contains the nerve tissue of the central nervous system, and you probably don’t get the chance.

Moore, Mullins, Stingley and Williams didn’t. Their lives have forever been altered by four tackles. And in a lesser way, Burroughs and Newsome have seen their lives transformed by neck injuries. One was forced to quit the game he loved. One still thinks about it.

Their stories:

ALLEN MOORE

One Tackle Catapults Mother’s Fears of Football Into Reality

--Headline from Dec. 3 edition of The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion Ledger.

You can reach Essie Moore these days at the intensive care unit of the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson. She spends most of every day there, comforting her son, talking to him, feeding him. She tried pretending to be in the holiday spirit--for Allen’s sake--but it only made her more sad. After all, how can you manufacture happiness when there are only tears?

Advertisement

It has been a long three months, but never long enough to forget what happened that September night, when someone called to say that her son had been hurt in a football game. As it turns out, Essie Moore said they shouldn’t have wasted their quarter. Before the first ring, she knew something had happened.

Essie Moore feared football, feared what it could do to her son, who was making his first appearance on the varsity. She went to two games to see Allen play earlier in the season, but then decided she could watch no more. On Sept. 22, the evening Allen’s Northeast Lauderdale Trojans were playing South Leake, Moore was at the Mendon-Zion Primitive Baptist Church in nearby Porterville, where she served as an usher for the nightly revival services. But this night was different. She had a sense that something had gone wrong.

Moore turned toward a co-worker that evening and calmly said, “I guess Allen got hurt tonight.”

“Why you say that?” asked the woman.

“I don’t know, just a feeling.”

But it was really more than that. She now says, “it was just like a neon light and it just kept flashing through my mind.”

Moore returned home that night tired and exhausted. Her daughter told her to take a nap, that she would go pick up Allen at game’s end. So Essie Moore slept, that is, until the call came.

“I rushed down there,” she said. “I was expecting like a leg broke, an arm broke. It never dawned on me that it was his neck. When the doctor told me, it was like somebody hit me.”

Allen’s spinal cord had been crushed when he tackled South Leake wide receiver Dexter Hall, who was running an ill-fated reverse. Waiting for him was Allen, who dug his helmet into Hall’s waist and then fell face-first to the ground. His legs and arms had quit working before he landed. A teammate, unaware Allen was hurt, tried picking him up to congratulate him. “Don’t touch him!” yelled a South Leake coach, who had seen Allen fall to the ground.

Northeast Lauderdale Coach Julius Moore (no relation) and an assistant rushed across the field.

“What’s wrong with you? Are you all right?” asked the assistant.

“I can’t feel anything,” Allen said.

The two coaches began to pinch his arms, poke him in the ribs, rub his legs.

“Can you feel that?” they asked.

“No,” he said.

An ambulance took Allen, his red and gray uniform covered in blankets, to a local hospital. Moore returned to the Trojan sidelines.

“We kind of thought it was probably a pinched nerve,” he says now. “It was not a pinched nerve.”

Since then, Julius Moore has watched a taped replay of the tackle at least 50 times. Each time, he becomes more puzzled.

“We can’t understand how he broke his neck,” Moore said. “It wasn’t one of those big hits, where you have a head-on collision. But what do you do? You just can’t tell that boy that you did everything right, but you still broke your neck.”

Allen’s neurosurgeon, Dr. Jimmy Miller, said the paralysis is irreversible. He theorized that younger football players, such as Allen, lacked a developed neck musculature, which might have helped absorb the blow. “It is our feeling that (younger players) may not have as much intrinsic protection.”

Miller has a son of his own. He said that he’s going to encourage him to play soccer.

None of this does Essie Moore much good. On occasion, more than she’d like to admit, she asks God why this had to happen to her son, the youngest of four children. Allen had talked about going to college and studying computer science. Now--who knows?

About $40,000 has been raised to help defray medical costs. It isn’t nearly enough. Essie Moore said she will worry about that later. For now, she has a son to love.

“I don’t know what to say to him,” she said. “I just try to be there. The only way to help is to be there.”

The Allen Moore Fund, Bank of Meridian, P.O. Box 1241, Meridian, Miss. 39302.

CHUCKY MULLINS

Ole Miss’s Mullins Is A Fighter; Condition Perilous For Paralyzed Player

--Headline from Oct. 30 edition of The Memphis Commercial Appeal.

Carver Phillips, who became Chucky’s legal guardian after Mullins’ parents died eight years ago, has never seen so much mail. Boxes upon boxes of letters are stacked in his Memphis hotel room, which is located across the street from Baptist Memorial Hospital, where Mullins now lives.

“It’s just like that movie that came on, ‘Miracle on 34th Street,’ ” Phillips said. “When they knew he was Santa Claus, the mail started pouring in. It’s a miracle. And I read every one that comes through.”

President George Bush has visited. Entertainer Wayne Newton stopped by. Ole Miss teammates, coaches and staff members regularly make the 90-minute drive from Oxford to Memphis. They come to lift his spirits, but usually it works the other way around.

These are hopeful days for Phillips and Mullins. About two weeks ago, Mullins started eating solid food again. And it was Phillips who helped bring the food to his mouth.

A physical therapist visits Mullins twice a week as part of a rehabilitation program. Mullins can whisper words. He can shrug his shoulders slightly. He is alert and, said those who have cared for him, almost always smiling.

In fact, he was able to attend Ole Miss’ 42-29 Liberty Bowl victory over Air Force Thursday night and delivered a pregame pep talk to his teammates before adjourning to the Mayor’s box to watch the game.

The ominous-looking halo brace, which kept his neck and head still, has been removed. His lungs contain less congestion every day. And soon, probably sometime in January, additional surgery to remove cervical bone fragments and repair a protruding disk, should help Mullins’ condition.

“He’s very aware of what’s happened,” Phillips said. “Right now, he hasn’t totally accepted it. He tells me he’s going to recover from it. He tells me he’s going to beat it. So I’m not going to accept it, either. Who knows what God has in store?”

Blind faith comes in handy in these situations, especially when surgeons somberly inform you that nothing more can done, that Mullins will spend the rest of his life as a quadriplegic and that is that.

Maybe so, but that doesn’t stop Phillips from doing what he can.

“I just talk with him,” he said. “I read to him a lot. I read his cards to him. I read the Bible to him.”

Chucky Mullins is a 20-year-old redshirt freshman who was probably too slow and too small to play football in the ultra-competitive Southeastern Conference. Overachiever is the word most often used to describe Mullins’ playing skills.

Leroy Mullins (no relation), the Ole Miss trainer, was one of the first people to reach Chucky as he lay deathly still on the Vaught-Hemingway Stadium field Oct. 28. You could hear a chin strap drop as he attended to the injured defensive back.

“Where do you hurt, Chucky?” Mullins asked.

“I don’t feel anything.”

“You don’t feel anything?”

“No, nothing.”

Leroy Mullins and an Ole Miss physician began pinching the player’s legs.

“You feel that?”

“No,” Mullins said.

“Chucky,” said the physician, “squeeze my hand.”

“I can’t.”

The doctor pinched him on the neck. “Can you feel that?”

“Yes.”

Ole Miss Coach Billy Brewer never moved from the sidelines. For the first time in his coaching career, he couldn’t. So fond was Brewer of the undersized Mullins, that he dared not venture toward him. The reason? Brewer thought Mullins was dead.

By day’s end, Mullins had been transported to a local hospital and then taken to Baptist Memorial.

It was not the first time Mullins had been rendered numb from a hit. Last August, during an Ole Miss practice session, he suffered what is commonly known as a “burner.” A burner generally occurs when the neck is extended and laterally flexed to one side. In the process, a nerve is compressed or irritated. When this happens, a player will get a burning sensation that begins at the root of the nerve and sometimes extends to the tips of the fingers. There is an immediate loss of strength and sometimes the function of the muscle is impeded. According to Keoki Kamau, head trainer for the San Diego Chargers, burners are most often suffered by interior linemen, then linebackers and defensive backs and then running backs.

Mullins eventually returned to practice that day. When later asked about the injury by Phillips, Mullins seemed to be unconcerned.

As for a connection between the two incidents, Leroy Mullins said he has been assured by doctors familiar with the case that there is no link, that this was a singular experience caused solely by the Oct. 28 tackle.

Recovery and rehabilitation will be expensive. In the next five years, costs could reach about $300,000, according to state authorities. The long-term annual expenses could range from $10,000 to $25,000.

So far, about $650,000 has been raised.

The Chucky Mullins Trust Fund, P.O. Box 249, University of Mississippi, Oxford, Miss. 38677.

DARRYL STINGLEY AND KENNETH JENNINGS

Patriots Win, But Stingley, Gray Hurt

--Headline from Aug. 13, 1978, edition of The Boston Globe.

Simeon Football Player Hospitalized With Possible Broken Neck

--Headline from Oct. 9, 1988, edition of The Chicago Tribune.

Stingley and Jennings are separated by 19 years, yet connected by an odd, wonderful friendship and a common foe, paralysis.

Stingley, a gifted, swift wide receiver, was hurt in an exhibition game at the Oakland Coliseum. Jennings, a well-intentioned prep player, was hurt on a patchy high school field. The results were the same: neither one of them can walk or move his arms much, but that doesn’t stop them from savoring life. It is a secret they try to share with anyone who will listen.

“I remain very optimistic,” Stingley said. “I don’t do that to kid myself. I go with the flow with my life. The Miami Project started by Nick Buoniconti (Buoniconti’s son, Marc, was confined to a wheelchair after his spine was crushed in a 1985 college football game) . . . that gives me hope right there. I know there is a collective group of doctors attempting to create change, to better the lives of people. In the meantime, it’s like waiting for Christmas. I just kind of have my own personal faith.”

Stingley has shared it with hundreds of people, some paralyzed, some not. Jennings was easy to visit since they each live in the Chicago area.

“He’s my running man,” Jennings said. “When I got hurt he came up to see me. It was a surprise, but I’m glad he did. He let me know that with an injury like this, life isn’t over. But to be honest about it, I never really had a bad problem with it. I just dealt with it from the beginning.”

It is not an easy existence. Lemmie Jennings, Kenny’s mother, must take care of one son confined to a wheelchair and another son who is autistic. She is a strong, proud woman who asks for no sympathy.

“Everybody says, ‘You’re a brave mother,’ ” she said. “I’m not a brave mother. Other mothers go through hard things. We have to learn to live with it. You go in the room and there’s no child there, then that’s a hardship.”

Kenneth turned 19 three days ago. After he graduates this spring, he wants to go to Florida A&M; and become an accountant. But first he wants to see the film of his injury. He needs to see it, he said cheerfully.

“That’s my last play ever, the last play I’ll ever see of me on the football field,” he said. “Was it my fault? Was it something I did, or was it something that just happened?”

Stingley knows all too well how he was hurt. A clean, but horrific tackle by Oakland Raider safety Jack Tatum smashed Stingley’s C-4 and C-5 vertebrae, the same two vertebrae that accounted for Allen Moore’s and Chucky Mullins’ injuries. Since then, Stingley has become sort of the patron saint for people faced with paralysis. His phone rings continually with requests mostly for advice and an understanding ear.

“Ten years ago, because of the response I received from people, from grade school kids who sent numerous pictures, from mayors of different cities, from George Bush, who was the vice president during my rehabilitation . . . I made a commitment to myself. The least I could do is be of any assistance I could.”

Stingley wasn’t always so compassionate. At first, he felt sorry for himself. He brooded. He sulked. It is a classic reaction.

Then he met singer/composer Stevie Wonder, who is blind.

“People are going to look at us and think what happened was bad,” Wonder told him. “But we are part of God’s army. Through our supposed weaknesses we will make other people strong.”

The Kenneth Jennings Trust Fund, c/o First National Bank of Chicago, Suite 0485, Chicago, Ill., 60670 .

VINCENT NEWSOME

Herniated Disk Sidelines Newsome For The Season

--Headline from Oct. 20, 1988, edition of The Times.

The Rams paid about $100 for the football helmet Newsome wears, which is nothing more than a polycarbonate alloy shell, a soft, protective inside for his head, a facemask, chin strap and pair of ear pads. In return, Newsome makes sure the team gets its money’s worth out of the royal blue and gold decorated helmet. Oh, does he ever.

In all, the whole thing weighs a little less than four pounds, plenty heavy to give the user the feeling of invincibility, as if the head and neck were immune from danger. It is a common mistake.

“The football helmet is not designed to protect the neck and never has been,” said Jim Van Deusen, director of promotions and risk management for Athletic Helmet Inc., one of only three helmet manufacturers still in operation.

Newsome, thoughtful and bright off the field, but aggressive on it, didn’t seem to care. Known for his hard tackles, he was particularly adept at using his helmet as a first-strike weapon. He wasn’t alone.

“You practice technique and you hope that when you’re in the heat of battle that you use the proper technique,” he said. “But sometimes you go with what you know, what works best for you. Sometimes you’re in a position where maybe your feet aren’t right when you make your move. Everything can’t always be the perfect tackle.”

Last season, after missing a game because of what he thought was a severe neck sprain, Newsome returned to the lineup for the Rams’ seventh game, which happened to be against division rival San Francisco. “And no one could keep me out of that,” Newsome recalled.

On the 49ers’ first offensive series, Newsome tackled wide receiver Jerry Rice after he had caught a pass for a modest gain. That’s when the burning sensation--similar to that of two games earlier--returned to his arms. With each subsequent hit, Newsome’s arms would throb with pain. So desperate was Newsome for relief, that he took a muscle relaxant, hoping it would ease the condition. It didn’t.

“But I stayed in because it was San Francisco,” he said. “Probably a dumb thing to do.”

Doctors discovered a herniated disk after a series of tests the next day. The problem diagnosed, Ram physicians prescribed rest, followed by a vigorous neck-strengthening program during the off-season.

Meanwhile, Ram equipment manager Todd Hewitt installed a protective collar to be attached to Newsome’s shoulder pads.

“It’s almost like a turtleneck,” Hewitt said. “It restricts the movement of the neck laterally and to the back. Vince comes in and really uses his head a lot. He gets a compression effect, where he almost gets his neck driven down into his body.”

The collar has helped, enough so that Newsome has suffered just one burner this season. It came against the Vikings Nov. 5. Since then, no pain, no problems.

“When I get on the field, I don’t think about risks,” he said. “I don’t say, ‘Oh, am I going to injure my neck, my knee?’ If you do, there’s no use playing because you’re really not playing. You’re playing not to get hurt. Once you start thinking about injuries all the time, it’s over.”

DERRICK BURROUGHS

Burroughs Hospitalized Only As Precaution

--Headline from Sept. 25 edition of The Buffalo News.

Burroughs is out of football now. He didn’t want to quit, but the Buffalo Bills gave him no choice. So on Nov. 15, when he stepped to the podium and told the Buffalo media that he was through with the NFL, he did so under protest, though it’s still difficult to understand why.

His right arm is partially numb and getting worse each day. And while the swelling in one of his cervical disks has decreased, there remains this matter of spinal stenosis, a fancy way of saying that Burroughs’ spinal canal is too narrow. Another hit like the one he took Sept. 24, when his entire body went numb for a half-hour, and who knows what might happen, said the Bills, who deemed his condition an unnecessary risk.

“There was no other option in my mind,” said Richard Weiss, the team physician. “Derrick was a criminal justice major in college. I told Derrick that as far as I was concerned, he should really pursue that area of his life. I told him that 10 years from now I would like to see him on the street and be able to shake his hand.”

As opposed to the possible alternative, which would be to visit him in a wheelchair.

If you happened to watch the television replays of the collision that forced Burroughs’ retirement, you saw him tackle Houston Oiler receiver Curtis Duncan and then get hit in the back by one of his own teammates, Bill safety Leonard Smith, one of the fiercest players in the game.

Moments later, Burroughs’ body shut down. He said his arms and legs felt as if they were on fire, as if someone were sticking pins into each of his limbs.

“I remember me not being able to move my arms and legs,” he said. “I realized I was paralyzed. I had visions of me being wheeled in a wheelchair the rest of my life.”

Emergency medical personnel gingerly scooped him off the turf and took him to the visiting locker room. As they did, Burroughs was able to slightly move his fingers and toes. About 30 minutes later, he could move his entire arms and legs. He was relatively fine, if you don’t count the horrible muscle spasms that moved up and down his arms, chest and neck.

When Leonard Smith returned to the dressing room at halftime and saw a healthy Burroughs, he burst into tears. “He thought he had hurt me,” Burroughs said. “Cried like a baby.”

Burroughs’ mother was watching the game on TV when she saw Derrick go down.

“I went to pieces, I guess,” she said. “Him retiring was an answer to my prayer. Derrick won’t think I remembered this but when he first went into (the NFL) he said, ‘I’d like to probably go in for about four years.’ Well, he had started in the fifth year when this happened.”

If anyone was to blame for the injury, it was Burroughs, who has since seen a replay of the hit and called it “terrible” tackling technique. “I ducked my head too low,” he said. “To be honest, I should have pulled off.”

Such poor technique isn’t uncommon, even in the NFL.

“They’re always sticking their heads in there,” said the Chargers’ Kamau. “I talk to my players about it and they say that the bottom line is that you’ll do what you have to do to get the job done, regardless of the technique.”

Burroughs spent that Sunday night in a Houston hospital, where he received several calls from Houston Coach Jerry Glanville. And when Burroughs returned home, Glanville phoned again, this time to suggest he quit playing. He even offered financial assistance.

As for the Bills, Burroughs said he has yet to hear from owner Ralph Wilson or from Coach Marv Levy. “Not even a ‘Sorry to see us lose a good player.’ Nothing,” Burroughs said.

Burroughs did ask Levy to call Memphis State, Burroughs’ alma mater, about an assistant coaching position. Levy said he did, although the job later went to someone else.

Burroughs and retirement aren’t best of friends. In fact, the adjustment has been so difficult that Burroughs is considering seeking psychiatric counseling. It certainly isn’t the first time a player has had trouble dealing with the realities of life after the NFL.

“I’m trying to let it go, but I can’t,” he said. “In time, I guess I’ll be able to.”

Before he announced his retirement, Burroughs sought a second opinion and consulted Dr. Joseph Torg, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on the traits of cervical spinal stenosis. Unlike Weiss, Torg said if the injured disk were removed, it would be safe for Burroughs to return. According to Burroughs’ interpretation of the diagnosis, the problem wasn’t with the stenosis, but with the fact that the narrowed spinal column and swelled disk were in the same area.

Torg was unavailable for comment.

Despite Torg’s opinion, Weiss and the Bills remained firm in their decision.

"(The surgical options) wouldn’t solve it, as far as I’m concerned,” Weiss said. “Listen, I know this is very difficult for him. He loves the game of football. He’s a hell of a football player. But football just doesn’t have the total value of a person’s life. Since you know there is a probability of injury, why deal with it? I mean, why pursue that? But there are some people who love to play Russian roulette.”

When Chucky Mullins was able to have visitors at Baptist Memorial, one of the first to see him was Burroughs, who lives in the Memphis area. Burroughs came to console, but he also came to learn what he had to lose.

“I knew that after I had seen him, after I saw how young Chucky was . . . that I wouldn’t want to come out and play again,” he said.

Before he left Mullins’ hospital room that day, Burroughs quietly told him about his own injury in Houston and also about the time at Memphis State that he suffered a burner, much like the one Chucky shrugged off last August.

Mullins whispered something. Burroughs leaned forward, close enough that his ear almost grazed Chucky’s lips. The words, however faint, will never leave Burroughs’ mind.

“He told me he should have stopped a long time ago.”


Advertisement