I Saw Horrific Things When I Played in the NFL

Half of football is enduring pain. The other half is inflicting it.

Illustration showing the silhouette of football player and pieces of shattered glass
Paul Spella / The Atlantic; Getty

When the Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field on Monday night, I was watching a cartoon with my 3-year-old son. When that ended, my son began playing with magnets on the floor, and I switched over to the game. Instead of football, I witnessed a frantic scene. A “routine football hit”—just like the thousands I had been involved in as a professional player—had left a 24-year-old man lying motionless on the grass, an EMT’s hands clasped above his sternum, trying to save his life.

Nearly nine minutes of CPR happened on that field as Hamlin’s teammates circled him and watched. The look on their faces told the real story: They believed they were watching their brother die—something most football players never consider as a possibility. An injury? Sure, we’ve all seen plenty of them. But not a fatality. It was shocking. So, frankly, was the fact that the NFL adjourned the game. The game always goes on.

Once, I was knocked momentarily unconscious in a nationally televised game. The trainer rushed out, and I came to while he was still holding my head and neck. I knew the cameras would be on me, so I moved my arms and legs around to let my mother know that I wasn’t paralyzed. I’m fine, Ma! No biggie!

Neither of my parents was wild about me pursuing football. When I was in middle school, they made a rule that I couldn’t play until high school, hoping that I’d lose interest. No such luck. I was already a head-over-heels football devotee. I had heroes. I collected football players’ cards. I watched every game. I read the sports page. I had the hats, the starter jackets, the jerseys. And I reveled in the mythology of the tough-guy football player who was willing to risk it all. Ronnie Lott, a safety for my beloved San Francisco 49ers, was given the choice of a season-ending finger surgery or finger amputation. He told them to cut it off. That’s how much football meant to him. Oh, how I longed to be involved with something that meant that much to me.

As soon as freshman year rolled around, I signed up, and the blood began to flow immediately. First from blisters and welts, then from gashes. It became clear after one day of football practice that pain would be a constant. Every play involved an action that caused an inflammatory process in my body. Bang. Crack. Smack. Hard plastic helmets with metal face masks sinking into supple flesh and bone. Crack.

“That doesn’t hurt, does it?”

“Of course not!”

Pretending not to be hurt is the norm. You just hit me as hard as you could, and guess what? It didn’t hurt! Half of football is enduring pain. The other half is inflicting it. But as a prepubescent freshman with no football experience, I was absorbing more than I was dishing out. One late-fall day at practice, I chased a pass across the middle of the field and was cracked in the temple by a pubescent sophomore. I crumpled to the ground and just lay there for a few minutes before being helped to the sideline. It must have taken me too long to get there.

“Hurry up, Jackson!” Coach yelled. “We’re burning daylight!”

I watched the rest of that practice and sat out the next week—clearly, in retrospect, concussed. But everyone else kept playing. The game always goes on.

A few years later, when I was a starting safety on varsity, the opposing quarterback was hit so hard by our linebacker, and at such a unique angle, that his chin strap snapped and his face mask was pushed through his upper lip into his mouth. He came to rest at my feet, spitting out chunks of flesh and teeth. An ambulance came onto the field and loaded him in, then drove off the field and out a side gate. It was driving along the other side of the fence, not yet out of sight, when the opposing team’s offense broke the huddle and stepped to the line of scrimmage. The game always goes on.

I played in college: more injuries. I played in the NFL: more injuries. In 2007, as a tight end for the Denver Broncos, I watched the Buffalo Bills player Kevin Everett collapse to the ground after another “routine football hit.” He had a fracture and dislocation in his cervical spine. “He looks dead,” my teammate said to me, half-joking, both of us believing, as we all did, that although we were risking injury, no one was going to die out there.

Everett was on that field for about 15 minutes before he was finally loaded in an ambulance and taken away. His departure elicited a powerful ovation from the crowd, but as soon as that ambulance disappeared into the tunnel, the anticipatory murmur returned to the at-capacity crowd. Those spectators were there for a reason. The whistle blew and the game resumed. The game always goes on—with or without you.

Never was this more clear than when my career ended for good. When all of the contusions, blisters, torn muscles, dislocated fingers, separated shoulders, and cracked ribs were healed. When no one was coming to hurt me anymore. When doctors no longer stood in a circle to watch me work, waiting for me to drop. When I no longer had to be my best. When I became just like everyone else—watching the fight from the sidelines.

Of all the pain I had endured on the football field, nothing hurt as bad as watching the game go on without me.

That 2007 Broncos helmet sits on a shelf at my house. There are three stickers on the back: No. 81, that’s me. No. 29—that was my teammate Damien Nash, who died that off-season after collapsing at a charity basketball game at his old high school. And No. 27—that was my teammate Darrent Williams, who also died that off-season, in the wee hours of New Year’s morning, shot dead in a stretch limo. The Broncos let us keep our helmets at the end of every season. I’ve given most of them away, but this one is special to me.

There’s another sticker on that helmet, too. It’s small, rectangular. It appears on every football helmet in America—high school, college, and professional. It reads:

WARNING: No helmet can prevent serious head or neck injuries a player might receive while participating in football. Do not use this helmet to butt, ram or spear an opposing player. This is in violation of the football rules and such use can result in severe head or neck injuries, paralysis, or death to you and possible injury to your opponent.

No one ever pointed that sticker out to me. It’s small enough to miss, so I never actually read it until I was done playing. My son surely doesn’t read it when he asks me to put the helmet on his head. He’ll stagger around under its weight, giggling, blissfully unaware of what I’ve done in that helmet and what’s been done to me.

As the ESPN broadcasters struggled in the unscripted aftermath of Damar Hamlin’s injury, I struggled with a question of my own. When people ask me if I’ll let my son play football, I always say: “We’ll see what he’s good at. I want him to pursue his interests.” Because what kind of father would keep his child from chasing his dreams?

But seeing the heartbroken faces of Hamlin’s teammates, who, 15 minutes prior, were living out their own dreams as professional football players; and seeing Hamlin himself—a beloved teammate, a model of hard work, and only 24 years old—laid out on the field, fighting to survive a “routine football hit,” I had to ask myself: Would a good father let his son play a game that always goes on?