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Original Issue

The Wild Ones

We demand that our sports heroes be hell-bent and heedless in the pursuit of victory. So why are we so surprised when daring proves to be their downfall?

Mention to a serious motorcyclist that you've purchased a Suzuki GSX-R750 and--once he's rubbed the drool from his lips--he'll tell you that it's a bike to be reckoned with. Equipped with a digitally fuel-injected four-cylinder engine and what Suzuki calls "incredibly slippery aerodynamics, especially at racetrack speeds," the $9,500 machine can reach 172 mph. It's the ultimate crotch rocket, "the definitive modern sports bike of our era," as one breathless reviewer put it.

In other words, it's no beginner's ride: If you're still fuzzy on where to find the brakes, then, to paraphrase the ad for Altoids mints, maybe you'd better practice on other bikes first. Especially if your $40 million NFL contract expressly forbids motorized two-wheeled fun. Yet there was Kellen Winslow II, the Cleveland Browns' top pick in the 2004 draft, throwing caution, and contractual restrictions, to the wind and buying a GSX-R750 last month. And there was Winslow on Monday, beginning his second week in a Cleveland hospital, his once-promising football career on hold thanks to a knee injury suffered when he wrecked the bike on May 1.

The tight end, who broke his leg in Game 2 of his rookie season and missed the rest of the year, was practicing stunt moves in a suburban Cleveland parking lot when he struck a curb at 35 mph and flew 16 feet into shrubbery. (Earlier that day Winslow had watched the Starboyz--a local stunt-riding team--perform in Canton.) He's lucky his wounds were reportedly confined to a bruised kidney, lacerated liver and a right knee injury that might be a torn ACL. Says Westlake, Ohio, police lieutenant Ray Arcuri, "The accident easily could have been fatal."

The line between youthful spirit and stupidity has always been a fine one, and Winslow, 21, is only the latest athlete to soar over his handlebars and land on the wrong side of it. In 2002 the Chicago Bulls took Duke guard Jay Williams with the second pick in the draft, then lost him a year later when he broke his pelvis and right leg in a motorcycle crash. (Williams, who hasn't played since, hopes to return to the NBA next season.) The New York Yankees released Aaron Boone last year after he shredded his knee in an off-season pickup basketball game. And until last Friday the Houston Astros were without All-Star outfielder Lance Berkman while he rehabbed the knee ligament he tore playing flag football last November.

What, the rest of the world can't help but ask, were these guys thinking? But, at the risk of seeming to defend the indefensible, isn't not thinking precisely what we admire them for? We like our jocks reckless, oblivious to the consequences of catching a pass over the middle, digging for pucks in dark, dangerous corners or pivoting above a pair of angry spikes. They are different from you and me, and their otherness does not end with the last pitch or the final buzzer. Our sports heroes are people who shoot first and may not ask any questions later.

This is not to say they're dumb, just that nothing, including stiff financial penalties, can change their nature. Nearly every pro contract tries to save thrill-seekers from themselves with clauses about basketball, skiing, skydiving, surfing or, to quote the standard NFL deal, "engaging in any activity other than football which may involve a significant risk of personal injury." The Bulls were able to buy out Williams's contract, which had two years and $7.7 million remaining, for $3 million when he got hurt. Boone's injury spelled the end of his days in pinstripes; the Yankees thanked the man whose home run put them in the 2003 World Series by releasing him and declining to pay most of the $5.75 million remaining on the contract they said he violated. After sitting out the 2004 season, Boone is now the Indians' third baseman.

If Winslow can't play this season, the Browns have the right to withhold $6 million in salary and bonuses. That, and the thought of him lying in a hospital bed, should be a cautionary tale for someone like Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who prefers to go without a helmet when he's tooling around on his Harley-Davidson. But here's where things get complicated. Last Friday coach Bill Cowher sat Roethlisberger down and talked to him about his bike riding and about making choices that won't jeopardize his career. The reigning NFL Rookie of the Year nodded and listened politely. He said he'd be careful, but he's not going to start wearing a motorcycle helmet.