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A Collision with Football Sidelines Violence

December 3rd, 2018 · No Comments · Football, Sports Journalism

We were watching an NFL game a week or so ago, when a running back was violently pushed out of bounds, stumbling several steps and into the motley clot of people who have permission to be on the edge of the action.

When the play was over, a large person in street clothes had been run over by the hefty ball-carrier, and was lying flat on the ground, face-down, as the cameras pulled away.

The TV director never went back to the play, and viewers were left to guess how it turned out for that anonymous civilian who had been run over. We were thinking “not well”.

This sort of incident is all too common. Watch nearly any football game closely, and you will see one or two instances per game of a armored player, often a big and fast man, scattering sidelines personnel like so many bowling pins.

The situation is particularly dangerous when civilians are thick along the sideline — team officials, former players, guests with sideline passes. In those cases, nearly any out-of-bounds play is going to put non-players at risk.

I had an up-close experience with the intersection of “player” and “civilian” at a high school game more than a decade ago.

I was run over at the end of a kickoff return in the final seconds of a lopsided game. Leaving me to receive stitches in my forehead — and to become particularly aware of non-combatants finding themselves in the midst of football collisions.

I was covering a high school game between two schools in Redlands, California. Namely, host Redlands East Valley and traditional power Redlands.

The latter team had scored late in a lopsided game, and it was during the little lull between touchdown and kickoff that I rushed out of the press box at Ted Runner Stadium at the University of Redlands and worked my way down to the playing field.

Why would I do that? Because the first order of business for a reporter with time to spare to speak with players or coaches … is getting from the nice viewing perch of the press box and down to the field, where the coaches and players will be available.

Reporters are not allowed just anywhere. Most organized leagues, from the NFL down to the high school level, have rules on this. In the NFL, I believe the guidelines, for years, banned reporters from taking up a viewing position anywhere between the 25-yard lines. Also, they are not allowed on the field at all until the final two minutes of the game. I have a notion that current NFL rules keep reporters off the sidelines entirely.

At any rate, I was not in danger of violating rules pertaining to location or timing, that night in Redlands.

I arrived near the western goal line and found a place seven or eight yards away from the out-of-bounds markings.

I was carrying a backpack, of course, and I placed it on the turf to dig out a tape recorder, and was rooting around in the bag as Redlands kicked off to REV.

I believe it was a squib kick that ended up with a REV player fielding it somewhere around the 10-yard line.

He was neither a big nor fierce player. Just a kid allowed to be on the return team in the final moments of a lost game.

Once he had the ball, he seemed keen to get out of bounds, and he was escorted across it, vigorously, by a Redlands player — who knocked the ball-carrier off-balance, and he stumbled briskly off the playing surface.

For a moment, he was not of concern to me, because I was several yards off the field, and also because a half-dozen sideline lookie-loos stood between me and the stumbling player.

However, as is often the case, the people on the sideline who were watching the action … gave way enthusiastically. It was like the parting of the Red Sea, and suddenly a clear path was created — from the stumbling player to my position, where I was rummaging through my backpack, while kneeling.

I heard the noise of players coming my way, and glanced up in time to see one headed directly for me, as he fought to stay on his feet, even when out of the field of play.

The crown of his helmet hit me in the forehead, a blow of some significance, which knocked me over and sent me rolling backward, with my clipboard, notebook and glasses going airborne behind me.

Things were a bit hazy for a moment or three after that. Someone brought me my glasses, which were bent and scarcely wearable. I found my clipboard, upon which I was compiling statistics.

I soon noticed that my notebook, which I had recovered, was showing drops of blood — mine — raining down on the paper.

Those around me, by now mostly journalists, seemed to find the whole thing amusing, once they saw I was up and around. “Why didn’t you get out of the way? That was lame!” Like that. I tried to explain about the disappearing thicket of people that had led to the collision, but mostly the observers wanted to tell me how silly I looked, as I was sent rolling over the turf.

I was mostly concerned by this interruption to my statkeeping, but luckily the game ended after another play or two, and my stats were quite close to complete.

By then, someone noticed the blood on my head and directed me to medical personnel on the Redlands sideline. A trainer produced a butterfly bandage, and it brought together the skin on either side of the gash in my forehead.

(Till then, it bled semi-spectacularly, as forehead wounds often do.)

But with the bleeding stanched, I was able to fight through a bit of fog and do a few interviews before leaving the stadium. At least one coach asked, after seeing the bandage, “What happened to you?”

I was a bit unsteady, but I thought I could drive safely. I never for a moment seriously considered going directly to a hospital, because I knew I would miss deadline, if I did. Filing the story always comes first, if humanly possible.

Anyway, I made it back to the newspaper offices, about a 20-minute drive, and banged out a story.

On the way out the door I asked the editors working that night to give my story a second read, because I thought I was in command of my faculties … but maybe my rattled brain was fooling me.

Next stop? The emergency room at a Redlands hospital, which was blessedly empty, allowing me to get attention almost immediately.

I think we did what now is known as “concussion protocols”, and I muddled through that, before we got down to business — which was stitching up my head.

The nurse told me I was in luck because that night one of the most celebrated sewers at the hospital was on duty (“He does just a wonderful job with stitches! You won’t even know you had a cut there!” Which turned out to be true.)

And then I went home. Most of the fog had cleared, and I had a swabbed and disinfected patch of six or seven stitches that came out a few days later, and I was as good as new. Or so I prefer to think.

That was my biggest interaction, as a non-combatant, with football violence.

Others have had much more serious collisions. The late Don Markham, a veteran coach, once suffered a significant knee injury when a player came flying out of bounds, and Markham was too closely enclosed by players and coaches to get out of the way.

In televised games, it is not at all rare to see photographers beyond the end zone bowled over by players — who seem completely disinterested at the havoc they create.

(Photographers are particularly at risk, because they lose much of their peripheral vision while looking through a viewfinder and don’t know they are in danger until it is upon them. We all have seen them knocked for a loop.)

It is a good thing, after all, for football sidelines to remain out of bounds for most civilians.

As I can attest, looking away from the action for even a moment can lead to a bloody annoyance.


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