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Original Issue

Helmets Are Not Weapons

Entering the Nov. 15 game against the Minnesota Vikings, Houston Oiler quarterback Warren Moon had missed only 10 games because of injury in his nine-year NFL career. But while playing with a lingering headache caused by a concussion sustained two weeks earlier, Moon suffered five small fractures of his upper left arm when he was speared by Viking defensive back Vencie Glenn. Moon, who will be sidelined until mid-to late December, here puts a perspective on this typically tough NFL season.

When I got ready to take the snap from center late in our game at Minnesota, it seemed as if our season was on the line: third-and-four, Viking 26, three minutes to go, and we're down 13-10. We had to score a touchdown. I didn't want to settle for a field goal, because it wouldn't be automatic and because I didn't want to risk going into overtime. I took the snap and started looking for a receiver, but the Vikings were on me. They almost sacked me twice. I knew I had to run for the first down. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the marker I had to reach, and I dove for it headfirst. Sliding feet first wouldn't have done the trick; I'd have been short. So I dove. I knew someone was diving at me, and—I know the play by heart now because I've watched it a million times on tape—this flying helmet, with Vencie Glenn's head inside of it, crushed my shoulder against the artificial turf.

The shoulder started to burn. The first thing that struck me, lying there on the ground, was not that I had made the first down. The first thing was hearing a couple of Vikings shout, "Yeah! We got him outta the game!"

The first guy I saw was Henry Thomas, a Minnesota defensive tackle. "Who said that, Henry?" I yelled. "That's totally uncalled for."

Nobody answered the question. Once they saw I was hurt, though, several Vikings asked if I was O.K. Still, the initial enthusiasm for my injury reminded me of how brutal pro football is. I'm not bitter, because things are said in the heat of battle, and I don't think any player actually tries to maim another player. I also don't think the injury situation in the league is worse this year than in any other recent year.

But there are questions pertaining to injuries that won't go away, and they bother me. I'm not just saying this because I'm hurt now. I was on the NFLPA Executive Committee during the players' strike in 1987, and player safety was a prime concern for the committee. For some reason it never gets much attention in the media.

Being out of the lineup for a couple of weeks, I've had some time to think, and I've been trying to make sense out of three hits—all within 14 days. The first one came on Nov. 1, when Pittsburgh Steeler cornerback Rod Woodson came right up under my chin with his helmet, splitting my chin open and driving my head back into the rock-hard Three Rivers Stadium AstroTurf. Then, in the first half of our game with the Vikings, linebacker Carlos Jenkins got a clean shot at me. He drove his helmet right into my sternum, pummeling me into the AstroTurf. Finally, later in the game, Glenn hit me. I think how fortunate I am to have played football for so long, because at some point these kinds of blows are going to knock you out of games. No matter who I am, or whether I'm 36 or 22, I would have gotten hurt from them.

These three plays had a couple of things in common. They all involved hitting with the helmet. And they all happened on AstroTurf. I realize that football is a violent sport. After the third or fourth game every year, every player hurts somewhere. That's not going to change. However, I don't think we're powerless to do something about cutting down injuries.

For starters we've got to stop using the helmet as a weapon. Ten years ago players were taught the fundamentals of wrapping up the ballcarrier. But creating turnovers has become so important that players today are being coached to strike with the helmet first—the hope is that it'll crash into the ball and jar it loose—with the second tackier wrapping up the ballcarrier. With players being bigger and faster, the impact of the helmet is much more powerful. Sometimes the helmet strikes the body, not the ball.

I wish people would realize that player safety is as paramount a concern for the players as free agency is. If the owners won't do away with artificial turf, they at least should pad the fields better and put a limit on the number of years the turf can be used before being replaced. Worn artificial turf is slippery, and the padding is awful. Part of the reason my concussion from the Woodson hit was so bad is that my head came down hard on the artificial turf. Hitting the quarterback immediately after he releases the ball is O.K. What's not O.K.—and this happens quite often—is driving the quarterback into cement-hard turf. Officials need to have more latitude to penalize defensive players for these needlessly jarring hits.

Standing in the pocket is kind of an ego thing with me. I'm going to wait for the open man and risk getting hit. There's a trigger inside my head that tells me at the last second, Get rid of it! That's what happened on the Woodson hit. Normally I'd be able to break my fall with my arms, but he pinned my arms at my side and drove me into the turf. Actually I don't remember anything that happened to me in the first 15 minutes after his helmet struck my chin.

I see all these big-name players going down with injuries—Albert Lewis, Anthony Munoz, Lawrence Taylor, Al Toon—and then I hear things like the owners want to cut rosters to 40 or 35 players because salaries will go up when a free-agency system is in place or because the next TV contract won't be as lucrative as the current one. For whatever reason, cutting the rosters would hurt the quality of the game. You would have a smaller number of players forced to play more plays and forced to play on more special teams, where the risk of injury can be greater than on plays from scrimmage.

I'm concerned about these things—very concerned. Right now, though, what I most care about is getting back and helping us win. You've got to understand the emotions involved in an NFL season. After we lost at home to Cleveland about a month ago and headed on the road for three straight games, everybody was writing our obituary. So we went to Minnesota in a must-win situation, and we won a cliff-hanger. Huge win. Emotional win.

Afterward guys were whooping and hollering and jumping up and down in the locker room. Our offensive coordinator, Kevin Gilbride, was so happy he couldn't stop slapping me on the back. I winced every time he slapped me. I hadn't been X-rayed, and I knew something was wrong, but I didn't want to dampen anyone's excitement. It was probably the most excited I'd ever seen our team.

A few minutes later I went for X-rays, figuring I had a bruise or some strained ligaments. When they told me the arm was fractured, I was in tears. I was crushed. So you can see what a euphoric day it was—and what a crushing day it was. Now each Monday we X-ray the arm near my shoulder to see how the bone is calcifying. I know pro football is a violent world, but it's my world. I can't wait to get back to it.



Moon was victimized by the helmet-first hits of Woodson (opposite) and Glenn.



[See caption above.]