Ken Norton Jr. couldn't have been more pumped for the 1994 season opener. He was preparing to make his 49ers debut after winning back-to-back Super Bowls with the Cowboys. The game was being played before a national TV audience for Monday Night Football.
Nearly 18 years later Norton, who played middle linebacker with an infectious smile and a physical style, remembers the game as if he were watching it on a flat screen in his Seattle-area home. Not because the night concluded with a 44--14 demolition of the Raiders but because it ended the career of running back Napoleon McCallum.
The former two-time All-America at Navy took a third-quarter handoff and plowed into the line, where Norton and defensive tackle Bryant Young were waiting. When they brought McCallum to the grass, his left knee hyperextended so severely that doctors later feared his lower leg might have to be amputated.
Norton, who was trapped beneath McCallum for several minutes, was so shaken by the injury that he thought about retiring. His voice was somber on Sunday evening as he reflected on the incident. "You spend a lot of time with the guys, and you can't help but care about them—you know what they've been through, because you've gone through it yourself," said Norton, who retired after the 2000 season and is now the linebackers coach for the Seahawks. "If someone is hurt and you were involved with it, you certainly contemplate why you should still be out there."
Norton isn't the only player who has considered walking away after seriously, if accidentally, injuring an opponent. The community of NFL players and alumni is relatively small, and they feel a sense of brotherhood that outsiders might never understand.
That's why many active and retired players had a hard time accepting the league's finding that from 2009 through '11, former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and 22 to 27 players participated in a secret bounty program that paid players to knock an opponent out of the game. That violates league rules, but to members of the fraternity it also breaches an unwritten protocol.
Players interviewed by SI did say that members of their defensive units pooled money weekly to reward the teammate with, for example, the best legal hit or the most sacks. Those bonuses are accepted among players on most if not all teams even though they violate league rules, but the players do not see them as bounties, because they don't target specific players or encourage injuring or knocking out an opponent.
What Williams and the Saints did, as alleged by the league's investigation, went far past the line of acceptability drawn by players. "When you say bounty and you talk about intentionally taking someone out, in essence you're talking about affecting his livelihood," said linebacker Junior Seau, a 12-time Pro Bowler who retired after the 2009 season. "That's not football."
Yet to say it doesn't happen would be naive, perhaps even dangerous. A starting linebacker, speaking on the condition of anonymity, admitted that he would try to take out, say, quarterback Tom Brady if given the opportunity, even if the hit might be questionable: "What do we hear all week from our coaches? 'We gotta hit Brady! We gotta hit Brady! We have to get him looking at the rush and not downfield.' Well, if we're in the playoffs with a chance to go to the Super Bowl, and I know it will help our chances if Brady isn't in there, I'm taking the shot."
One of the potential effects of the Saints investigation is that now hits that cause a player to leave the game, even if they are said to be accidental, might be viewed more skeptically—even by other players. As it is, some fringe players are willing to follow any instruction if it will help keep them on the roster.
"What if a player said, 'I'm not doing that'?" asked veteran wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh. "You can't really go against it, because it's not the popular thing to do. It makes you look soft. It's almost like you're damned if you do, damned if you don't. But it's hard for me to imagine players really trying to hurt players."
Particularly if they have a conscience. Just ask Ken Norton Jr.
HARD TO HANDLE Norton was so shaken after the 1994 tackle that resulted in McCallum's career-ending injury that the Niners linebacker considered retiring.