Buffalo Bills players and staff pray for Buffalo Bills' Damar Hamlin during the first half of an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in Cincinnati. The game was postponed after Buffalo Bills' Damar Hamlin collapsed, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced. (AP Photo/Joshua A. Bickel)

We had enjoyed a stupendously entertaining holiday weekend of football. On Saturday, the NCAA semifinal games were both down-to-the wire classics with TCU upsetting Michigan and Georgia surviving Ohio State on Saturday. Then, Monday, Mississippi State won one for The Pirate, before Tulane shocked the football world, overcoming a 15-point fourth quarter deficit to stun Southern Cal and its Heisman Trophy quarterback.

Rick Cleveland

All were perfect examples of why so many of us love the sport of football so much – such passion, so much drama, so many heroics. But that was enough football for me until the social media alerts prompted a check-in to the NFL Monday night game, which had been suspended because of a dreadful injury. As this is written, Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin remains in critical condition from a freakish injury suffered just seven minutes into the game. Hamlin’s heart stopped beating after he tackled Cincinnati receiver Tee Higgins.

Higgins’ helmet hit Hamlin in his chest. Hamlin went to the ground, rose to his feet and then just keeled over to the ground unconscious and stopped breathing. CPR was administered on the field as players on both teams cried and comforted one another. It was shocking scene, a sober reminder that this sport many of us love so much is so inherently dangerous.

And here’s the deal: In all that football we watched over the weekend, there were scores of collisions that appeared far, far more hazardous than the one that severely injured Hamlin. His was clearly a freakish injury.

Chucky Mullins

For many of us in Mississippi, it was a reminder of a scene 33 years ago at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium when Chucky Mullins slammed into Vanderbilt receiver Brad Gaines and fell to the earth never to rise on his feet again. The collision shattered four vertebrae and paralyzed Mullins from the neck down instantly. Approximately 19 months later, Mullins was stricken with a pulmonary embolism and died on May 6, 1991.

What happened to Mullins changed the way at least this one sports writer has viewed the sport. Always before, my reaction to such a collision was, “Wow! What a great hit!” Ever since, my reaction to the same sort of hit has been: “Please, get up.”

In more recent years, as we have learned more and more about the long-term effects of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), every collision and every resulting concussion rekindle the fear for the safety of those who compete. Indeed, five years ago, I did a series of stories about Mississippi football players who, years after retirement from football, suffered the dreadful effects of CTE. The families of Bobby Crespino, Doug Cunningham, and Willie Daniel donated their brains to CTE Center at Boston University. There are four stages of CTE. Crespino, Cunningham and Daniel all were in the fourth and most dire stage.

Wesley Walls

I have spoken with many, many former college and professional players, still living, who live in fear that will face similar issues. Wesley Walls, the former Ole Miss and NFL star, may have put it best. “I worry, man, I worry,” Walls told me. “It’s the biggest worry of my life because I see what it has done to other guys, guys I played with and against. I was taken off the field three times for concussions. I probably had at least four more.”

Leaders at every level of football have changed the rules to try and make the sport more safe. Targeting (a helmet-to-helmet hit) has been outlawed. Blindside blocks are now penalized. Equipment, helmets especially, have been upgraded. But there’s just no getting around the fact that these are huge, fast men running into one another. Rule changes and equipment improvements will never eliminate the inherent danger of serious injury. That’s just fact.

And this is nothing new. In the early 1900s President Theodore Roosevelt led the crusade for radical rule changes in hopes of saving the sport. Those rule changes lessened the danger and reduced deaths.

But the danger remains. And it will remain.

In the end it is up to each individual to decide whether or not to participate or, for that matter, whether even to watch.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.