When I first stated following American football, back in the early 80s, there were two positions I always wanted to play. The first, obviously, was quarterback. Who wouldn’t want to be the team’s glory boy? I don’t think that, at the time, it occurred to me that he would also be the team’s best paid player, but then neither did the possibility that he might also be the subject of huge levels of public opprobrium; as one who found himself shouting “Jesus Christ, is a quarterback with hands too much to hope for?” at Rex Grossman on Sunday, I know that only too well now.
The other position I wanted to play was tight end. “Tight what?” you may well ask, and I wouldn’t blame you for doing so. One of the nice things about this kind of football is that, unlike in sports such as rugby and cricket, most of the positions on the field have reasonably straightforward names. “Quarterback” would probably be an obscure title, but fortunately even non-fans know what that is. “Linebacker” is a bit contrived, but not too bad once you realise that linebackers are the guys playing behind the front line when the side is defending. I could explain what a ‘nickelback’ is - other than a really bad rock band - but you don’t often see someone playing there anyway.
None of which explains what a tight end is. I guess the best analogy would be with a flanker in rugby. Imagine if you will the typical American football scene, with the two lines of men facing one another, crouched down, like two rugby front rows just about to engage. The tight end will be the guy on the very end of the attacking side’s line. His job is basically to be both a blocker of players trying to get to the quarterback, but also an outlet for the quarterback to throw the ball to, usually if he is in trouble himself. In other words, very much the relationship between a flanker and his scrum half. It’s a pretty thankless job, far removed from the glamour of being a quarterback, running back or wide receiver and I have no idea why it appeals to me so much.
The nature of the role is such that tight ends get banged up pretty easily, too. There’s always someone just that little bit bigger than you trying to flatten you. Fortunately, serious injuries in the NFL are pretty rare. The padding and helmets are much maligned on this side of the pond, but they are there for a reason - you should see some of the photos from the 1950s, before there was any real protection at all - and whilst there are now concerns about the long term effects of the sport, these are more to do with the level of care (or lack of it) available to ex-players than the seriousness of onfield injuries.
All of which makes what happened to the Buffalo Bills’ Kevin Everitt at the weekend rather shocking. Everitt - the Bills’ reserve tight end - suffered a severe spinal injury when tacking Domenik Hixon of the Denver Broncos. He underwent surgery on Sunday evening to repair fractures to his third and fourth vertebrae. For a time it was thought that he would never walk again, but at the time of writing he has regained some movement in his arms and legs. It is, however, the most severe injury in the NFL since Detroit Lions’ Mike Utley was paralysed from the waist down whilst making a tackle back in 1991. That record compares very favourably with both rugby codes.
It wasn’t a good week for the Bills. They lost two other players to season ending injuries. One of them, Ko Simpson, broke an ankle tripping over a team mate. And they lost to a last-minute field goal, too.
In other news:
· Randy Moss scored a touchdown on debut as New England beat the New York Jets 38-14. The Patriots might be in trouble, though, as they are being investigated by the NFL, accused of spying on the Jets;
· In the same game, Eli Hobbs set an NFL record by running 108 yards for a touchdown;
· Big Ben Roethlisberger threw a career best four touchdowns to help Pittsburgh beat Cleveland 34-7;
· Chicago, as you might have guessed, blew their game against San Diego. Despite being 3-0 up for most of it, they contrived to both lose 14-3 and lose two key members of their defense to season-ending injuries;
· Atlanta got off to a predictably bad start, losing 24-3 to Minnesota;
· Brett Favre’s 384th season in the NFL began with a win as he lead Green Bay to a 16-13 win over Philadelphia, the winning score coming with just two seconds remaining;
· Another late finish saw Washington beat Miami 16-13 in overtime;
· The other New York side, the Giants, lost to Miami and also saw quarterback Eli Manning to a shoulder injury which will keep him out for a month. It would be unkind to suggest that this won’t make much difference to the team, but I’m going to do it anyway;
· The least said about how woeful Oakland were, the better. But at least they really have now signed JaMarcus Russell;
· More bad news for Tennessee. Not only is Pacman Jones suspended for the season, their other star cornerback Antonio Gates is out injured for it (Pacman, meanwhile, has used his time off to become a tag team wrestling champion. As you do.).