Dave Boling

Boling: Injury to Ricardo Lockette scary reminder of players’ vulnerability

Seahawks receiver Ricardo Lockette (83) tackles the 49ers' LaMichael James (23) on a kickoff, forcing a fumble, during the first half of the NFL football NFC Championship Game Jan. 19, 2014.
Seahawks receiver Ricardo Lockette (83) tackles the 49ers' LaMichael James (23) on a kickoff, forcing a fumble, during the first half of the NFL football NFC Championship Game Jan. 19, 2014. The Associated Press

After the scary medical developments in the Seattle at Dallas game Sunday, I searched the internet for images of the kind of big hits that make the National Football League so popular and dangerous.

Yes, dangerous, because these guys are human beings vulnerable to the ballistics of high-speed collisions — particularly on special teams.

There was one picture where this lean muscular dude seems to have been launched through the air and was taking the head off a punt returner who had crumbled from the contact.

I remembered witnessing the play in real time, and thought it was one of the most devastating hits I’d ever seen. The tackler was so fast and powerful, like a rocket detonating on contact.

The crowd that day went wild. It sounded just as the crowd did Sunday when the Seahawks’ Ricardo Lockette took a vicious shot on punt coverage. It all went silent quickly, though, when Lockette fell motionless to the field.

He was carted off, concussed but not paralyzed. He underwent surgery in Dallas on Monday to stabilize a ligament and disc injury in his neck. He’s expected to be lost for the season. But it could have been worse.

The laws of physics are more punitive on punts and kickoffs, where players have 30 or 40 yards to accelerate to high velocity before contact.

Beyond that, there is a fast-and-furious mentality of players on special teams, who are often reserves at other positions driven to make big plays to solidify their value and secure their place on the roster.

Lockette is a prime example. He’s one of the best coverage men in the league. And while he’s an occasional threat as a receiver, he might not be on a roster if he hadn’t earned his stripes on coverage units.

He has 22 receptions in five seasons. But on special teams, he’s fast and extremely tough. He has five unnecessary roughness penalties and one ejection in his career.

Would other teams target a player like Lockette? Put it this way: Whenever any opponent puts together a special teams game plan for the Seahawks, the speedy Lockette is surely their No. 1 concern. He has to draw specific attention.

Those who love the game admit to being drawn by the “controlled” violence, and their admiration for those who have the degree of toughness it takes to play.

But we were reminded Sunday how delicate is that line between the exciting hit and the sobering call for the backboard.

These are men with families and children, and the reasonable expectation of functioning as ambulatory civilians for decades after their careers are finished.

The NFL is trying to make the game safer, but somewhere in that main office, they have to face an inner debate, knowing that the big hits are some of the favorite parts of the game to fans.

They levy fines and penalties, but the risk of injuries is an almost irreducible element of the game.

How is it possible to manage a game when all-out, full-throttle hits may be legal when connecting with a player’s shoulder, but severely punished when the hit lands three inches away on the helmet of a man who is a moving target?

Nearly 100,000 people were stunned to stillness in AT&T stadium in Dallas when Lockette was down.

It was a reminder how vulnerable these players are to serious injury. And it was a testament to how much Lockette means to his teammates. So many afterward talked about how he’s among the most popular players in the Seahawks locker room.

All, of course, are pulling for his quick and full recovery.

It’s a tough reality, but these big and dangerous hits are a kind of grim currency for those who make their living on NFL special teams.

Ironic, perhaps, but I would wager the kind of hit that threatened Lockette is the very kind that he so admires.

I say that because the image of that one wicked hit I described earlier was a photo of Lockette unloading on Rams punt returner Justin Veltung in December 2013 at CenturyLink Field.

I found the picture displayed on Lockette’s Instagram feed.

Dave Boling: 253-597-8440

dave.boling@thenewstribune.com

@DaveBoling

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