Fiddich Review Centre

NFL injuries bring quiet and the dreaded cart. Then teammates play on.


The game sometimes halts. The stadium fills with momentary quiet. A motorized cart, the kind that might otherwise be deployed for groundskeeping or golf, steers onto the field as a gurney, toward one man in dire pain. Two swarms of large men who had been inflicting bodily harm on one another kneel. One of their colleagues, perhaps one of their best friends, is loaded onto the vehicle and driven away.

The most dreaded physical occurrence on an NFL field inevitably precedes the most mentally arduous. Once one player is treated for an injury that requires a cart to carry him off, the next snap for the rest of his teammates is only seconds away. Those thorny, complicated, terrible moments in between illustrate a sliver of the bargain every player must strike, a piece of the toll to make millions of dollars playing in the nation’s most popular sports league.

“It’s a reminder you’re not invincible out there, even though you feel like it,” Baltimore Ravens guard Kevin Zeitler said. “It sucks. You start thinking about your career suddenly. But it’s part of the game. You have to keep on moving. It’s kind of trained into you. From college on, someone goes down in practice, you literally just move the drill 10 yards up. You leave him, and you just keep moving forward. It’s part of the machine-like part of the NFL. You have to keep going. You learn to accept that. For that brief moment, though, your humanity comes back to you.”

In that moment, on their knees, players wonder if a career will be shortened or a life altered. They say prayers. Washington Commanders defensive back Kendall Fuller makes it a point to place his hand on the injured player, teammate or opponent. Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham considers the fallen player’s career circumstances. Is he a star? At least he has a multiyear contract with some guaranteed money. Is he a veteran on a one-year deal? He’ll be looking for a new team in the offseason. Is he an undrafted player? He could have just played his last NFL down.

“They had their opportunity, and now you ain’t available for them,” Graham said. “This league is unforgiving on that part.”

Moments after a serious injury occurs, sometimes while the cart is still making its slow journey to the stadium tunnel, players must summon the will to perform the precise task that caused the grave scene. They walk back to the line and stand face-to-face with opponents they may have just been praying alongside. It would seem to be a moment ripe for mutual recognition of the burdens of their profession — but even then, players agreed, there is rarely, if ever, an acknowledgment of what just happened or what the game extracts.

“Nah,” Commanders defensive lineman Jonathan Allen said. “They got a job to do. I’m trying to rip your face off. No nice way to play defensive line.”

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Football demands players repress compassion — until an injury serious enough to pause the game forces them to grapple with it, either surfacing it for a few minutes or building a stronger wall to keep it at bay. Players balance the urge for empathy with the game’s required callousness. The compartmentalization carries a psychic toll.

“There’s a moment of humanity in there,” Zeitler said. “And then it’s back to the game. You have to be a football player. You have to be the guy. And then after the game, you can become a human again.”

“You want to be able to feel for that player and be there in that moment,” Commanders offensive tackle Charles Leno Jr. said. “But depending on where you are in that moment, you just can’t.”

After Cleveland Browns guard Wyatt Teller prays for an injured player, he starts to ask himself questions meant to regain focus: What’s the opponents’ defense? Is there a substitution package? Who’s in their huddle?

“With football,” Teller said, “it comes down [to] a switch.”

In his first college game at Oklahoma, Eagles offensive tackle Lane Johnson watched his quarterback, Sam Bradford, suffer a sprained shoulder that forced the game to pause. The hush of the crowd stunned him. In the 13 years since, seemingly with a tinge of regret, Johnson has grown used to the suffering of teammates in the context of football. He has come to view it as an ingrained byproduct of the sport.

“It just seems like the show goes on,” Johnson said. “It sucks. It definitely sucks to watch. But I feel like I’ve been desensitized to it.”

In Leno’s first NFL start, back in 2015 with the Chicago Bears, he was assigned a tandem block with center Will Montgomery. He would cut-block the nose tackle as Montgomery pulled toward him. But Leno and Montgomery each took a small step the wrong way, and rather than hitting the defender, Leno dove into Montgomery’s knee. Montgomery’s fibula snapped; in one fractional false move, Leno had broken his teammate’s leg.

Shaken, Leno tried to apologize to Montgomery as he sat on the cart. Montgomery brushed him off and insisted he refocus. “It’s football,” Leno recalled Montgomery telling him. “This s— happens. Get back to it.” Back in the huddle, as the cart drove toward the tunnel, a fellow offensive lineman told Leno, “We got a job to do.”

Montgomery never played another NFL snap. When Leno and Montgomery saw each other years later, they laughed about the play.

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In 2019, when Zeitler played for the New York Giants, his close friend Jon Halapio, the Giants’ center, tore his Achilles’ tendon late in the fourth quarter of the season finale. Halapio was 28 and had returned from a serious leg injury the season before. He attempted to come back again the next season, but the injury ended his career.

As Halapio rode off, Zeitler was so devastated he wondered if he should, or even could, play the final few snaps. (He did.) The incident made Zeitler contemplate his relationship with the sport.

“That was one that messed with me,” Zeitler said. “… The game was over. We had already lost. We were just trying to run the ball to run the clock out. That was bad. That was a gut punch.”

Most players shrug at the task of having to play again after football claims a fellow participant. They long ago accepted, or even embraced, the risks of their profession, and for many of them, a catastrophic injury to another player is not a reminder of what could happen. Something you live with requires no reminder.

“Once you sign that contract, it’s 100 percent injury rate,” Leno said.

“It’s like everything else in life,” Ravens outside linebacker Justin Houston said. “When something bad happens, you pray about it, but you can’t stop it or focus on it. The game continues. Life continues. [If] somebody dies in your family, and you’re sitting there later letting it beat you day in and day out, it can cause a lot of problems. That’s just the game of football related to life.”

Some players attempt to channel their emotions back into the game. “If it’s a guy on your team, it’s like, ‘Let’s play hard for him,’ ” Fuller said. “It never gets to that mentality like, ‘I don’t know if I want to do this.’

“A lot of guys affected by those injuries, after their injury, you see guys black out a little bit. The first thing they ask about is, ‘Did we win?’ They want guys to play hard and get the win. That’s what you try to think about. That’s what you try to do.”

Moving on after an injury is part of the ethos of the sport, so embedded that when an injury happens during practice, coaches move to another spot on the field rather than stopping.

“F—ing coaches blow a whistle, move up five, 10 yards and just run another f—ing play,” Johnson said.

“Let us figure out if he’s all right first,” Graham said. “But I do understand: We got a time that we got to get this practice done. We’ll find out if he’s all right later. It is messed up, man, when you think about it. It is. But you’ve been groomed so long for it — next-man-up mentality. You keep hearing that, [and] you don’t really feel as bad because you’ve just been so groomed. We’ve been groomed since we were kids: ‘Next man up, next man up.’ ”

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The capacity to suppress emotion after trauma may seem like an undesirable skill, but without it, a player probably would lack the mental wiring required to reach the NFL in the first place.

“If you’re playing this game, you’re not all the way there,” Leno said. “Let’s just be honest. What are we doing, right? Look at the game we’re playing. Look how physical it is. … If you’re playing this sport, you’ve got to have something a little off to make you able to eliminate distractions and focus on the task.”

“A lot of it is just about enduring,” Johnson said. “Especially at the O-line position, there ain’t a whole lot to look forward to. You just got to take s— and f—ing keep going.”

They keep going. The cart goes off, and the show goes on.

“I don’t know if it’s a loss of humanity, but it is a little weird,” Teller said. “That’s the game. I guess it is a little bit of a loss of humanity.”

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