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Afternoon of High Trauma

On a better Sunday, like most Sundays the Pittsburgh Steelers have had since Tommy Maddox took over at quarterback, Maddox would have been the one taking a knee, winding down the clock on another Steeler victory.

But this afternoon was an unusually brutal one, even for a league built and reared on violence. This time, Maddox’s teammates were the ones on one knee, their heads hung in silent prayer, as the season’s brightest, most unexpected success story was strapped onto a trauma backboard and carefully lifted into an ambulance.

Maddox, 4-1-1 in his first six starts with Pittsburgh, was trying to rally the Steelers again when he was tripped while attempting an on-the-run pass on the last play of the third quarter. Maddox was on his way down when, just before flipping the ball to receiver Antwaan Randle El, he was hit in the left shoulder by Tennessee linebacker Keith Bulluck’s forearm.

Maddox rolled onto his head as he hit the ground. Randle El grabbed the pass and was tackled. As both teams retreated to their respective huddles, they noticed Maddox still on the ground, face down and motionless.

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Trainers and doctors were summoned. Maddox was conscious, but he had no feeling in his arms and legs. An ambulance was driven onto the field. For more than 15 minutes, medical staffers worked on Maddox, placing his neck in a brace and fastening him to the backboard.

Players from both teams knelt and prayed. Bulluck stood alongside the ambulance as the door closed, leading the crowd at the Coliseum in Nashville in a standing ovation for the Pittsburgh quarterback.

Maddox was taken to the trauma unit at nearby Baptist Hospital for tests and overnight observation. By the time Tennessee had concluded its 31-23 victory over Pittsburgh, reports from the hospital were filtering back to the stadium. Maddox was moving his arms and legs again and Steeler spokesman Ron Wahl said the player was “awake, alert and has been talking with his family.”

Maddox was to be reexamined today, but according to Wahl, the initial diagnosis was a concussion and a spinal cord contusion.

“We’re all cautiously optimistic,” Pittsburgh Coach Bill Cowher said.

Maddox was one of three quarterbacks seriously injured Sunday. Denver’s Brian Griese could be sidelined for up to a month after spraining his left knee in the Broncos’ 31-9 victory over Seattle. Philadelphia’s Donovan McNabb will be out six to eight weeks after breaking his right ankle during the Eagles’ 38-14 triumph over Arizona.

That last bit of news startled fans in Philadelphia, who saw McNabb tackled hard on the third play of the game, noticed him limping a little after that ... and then watched him play more than 3 1/2 quarters, completing 20 of 25 passes for 255 yards and four touchdowns.

It wasn’t until after the game that X-rays were taken, revealing that McNabb had fractured his right fibula on that first-quarter play, meaning he had completed 80% of his passes and equaled his career high by throwing for four scores while playing on a broken leg.

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Finally, the NFL has produced a quarterback tough enough to match tales with Jack Youngblood, the former Ram defensive end who once played a Super Bowl with a leg fracture.

Initially, McNabb and the Eagles thought the injury was a sprain.

“I know he was hurting,” Eagle Coach Andy Reid said after the game. “We obviously didn’t know this.... He wasn’t going to come out, and showed a lot of grit.”

McNabb said he simply “blocked it out.” With the game underway and the adrenaline flowing, McNabb said he “just tried to do whatever it took to win the game.... You’ve got to keep fighting.”

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Once football fans in Pennsylvania received the encouraging news from the hospital about Maddox’s condition, they were left to cope with the bulletin that McNabb would be sidelined for the remainder of the regular season, maybe longer.

Suddenly, the state’s hopes of a Pittsburgh-Philadelphia Super Bowl rest in the hands of Kordell Stewart and Koy Detmer.

Stewart, who began the season as the Steeler starter before being replaced by Maddox midway through Pittsburgh’s third game, inherited a 31-7 deficit by the time he entered the game against the Titans. Stewart completed 13 of 17 passes for 124 yards, two touchdowns and a pair of two-point conversions, pulling the Steelers within 31-23 with 1:26 remaining.

Pittsburgh tried an onside kick, but Tennessee recovered and ran out the clock.

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Detmer replaced McNabb with 4:49 left and the Eagles comfortably in control of the game. McNabb is the richest player in the NFL, and the most valuable not named Brett Favre. With McNabb passing for 17 touchdowns and rushing for nearly 500 yards, the Eagles are 7-3. But Philadelphia faces back-to-back games against San Francisco and St. Louis -- and a rising challenge from the 6-4 New York Giants, who won their third in a row with a 19-17 decision over Washington.

McNabb said the right things, promising that, “If I’m not out there and Koy is, we’re not going to miss a beat.” But the sobering fact remains that Detmer, the man in charge of getting the Eagles to the playoffs, has made only six starts in his four-year NFL career -- and none since 1999.

As Miami knows, a Super Bowl contender is only as good as its backup quarterback. The Dolphins were 0-3 with Jay Fiedler out with a broken thumb before second-stringer Ray Lucas finally broke through Sunday with a 26-7 victory over Baltimore.

Denver, with Steve Beuerlein in reserve, has reason for optimism. After Griese was knocked out of the game by Seattle rookie Rocky Bernard, who rolled up on the quarterback’s left knee, Beuerlein came in and produced a touchdown with his first pass, a one-yard toss to Patrick Hape. Beuerlein threw only one more pass the rest of the game. That went for a touchdown too.

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Beuerlein was seconds away from replacing Griese in the Broncos’ opener before Coach Mike Shanahan changed his mind and stayed with his struggling starter against the Rams. Griese held on to win that game, and held onto his job, helping the Broncos win seven of 10 games.

Griese is scheduled to undergo an MRI exam today. Depending on the results, a Bronco spokesman said Griese either could be sidelined a month, or back in the lineup next Sunday against Indianapolis.

And in a Nashville hospital, more tests will be done on Maddox today.

If a concussion and a bruised spinal cord are the worst of it, if Maddox walks out of that hospital today, the Steelers and their fans will consider their trip to Tennessee a major success.

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