It was a good thing for Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Dave Kreig that he moved out of the pocket at the last moment-and as it turned out, a terrible thing for Jet defensive end Dennis Byrd. As Byrd and teammate Scott Mersereau thundered toward Kreig like two runaway freight trains on a collision course, the quarterback stepped forward ever so slightly-just enough so that Byrd rammed headfirst into Mersereau's formidable sternum. Byrd doesn't remember much of what happened next, but when he came to moments later, he told worried doctors he could move his arms a little and his legs not at all.
Football players put their bodies on the line, and injuries of all kinds come with the turf they fight for. This season alone several hundred players have been shoved, shouldered or butted out of action. Among them is Giants' super-linebacker Lawrence Taylor, out, perhaps for good, with a torn Achilles' tendon, and Jets wide receiver Al Toon, who abruptly retired on the advice of doctors, Nov. 27, after what he said was the ninth concussion of his career. But the collision that left Dennis Byrd partly paralyzed with a fractured cervical spine was a reminder that besides heads, limbs and ligaments, players literally risk their necks in the game.
The neck is a fragile structure, fortunately surrounded by strong muscle that absorbs the shock when a player tackles with his head up. With the head down and the impact at the top of the head, the muscle doesn't come into play. Instead, the bony sleeve of the spine compresses downward, forcing its natural curvature to straighten (diagram). When it cant compress any further, the pressure must find release somewhere. The sleeve buckles, usually at a point close to the impact, bruising the soft tissue of the spinal cord itself. The cord, as big around as a finger and about 20 inches long, is a sort of telephone cable with millions of wires bundled into it, the connecting fibers of the body's central nervous system. Often only an inch of cord is injured when the spine buckles, but it is enough to interrupt the flow of nerve signals that control movement and other functions. "When you see the forces involved in football, it surprises me it doesn't happen more often," says Dr. Richard Bunge, a director of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. "A bad bruise of only one or two inches is enough to leave you paralyzed."
In fact, this was only the third such pro-football injury in 14 years. The NFL laid down a strict rule against "spearing"-using the helmet as a weapon-in 1984. Ironically, the helmet itself gained that deadly potential when it was switched from leather to hard plastic to afford greater protection against head trauma. Some critics believe that turned the game meaner and more dangerous, despite the earnest anti-spearing admonitions printed on the helmets.
By the end of last week, there was a growing debate over whether Byrd, ignoring the warnings, was all set to ram Chiefs' quarterback Dave Kreig headfirst. Jet officials insisted it was a "freak accident." But doctors who viewed the tapes dispute that. "Byrd was clearly aiming with his head," says orthopedist Dr. Joseph Torg, director of the Sports Medicine Center at the University of Pennsylvania, who helped bring about the spearing ban by compiling high-school and college football-injury statistics. Torg charges that the NFL has refused to provide such data and that its enforcement of the ban has been lax. "The league has paid little more than lip service to injury-prevention programs," he says. Players themselves tend to blame the injuries on outside forces, such as the artificial turf now used in many stadiums. "Underneath that thin layer of turf is concrete," says Mare Buoniconti, left quadriplegic by a neck injury in a 1985 college game and now a roving ambassador for the Miami Project. "I think injuries of all kinds are going to become more frequent." Players do move faster and collide more violently on synthetic turf. But while the overall injury toll seems to be rising there is no clear proof that the turf is the cause.
All players wear face masks now and many wear neck rolls as well, to prevent whiplash injuries. But sports doctors think it's the way the game is played that's at fault. "The cause is head-impact playing technique," insists Torg. "There is no helmet, no device that will protect the cervical spine from catastrophic injury. Every kid who plays, every coach and administrator should understand that using the head as a battering ram should be prohibited."
At New York's Lenox Hill Hospital last Wednesday, Byrd underwent seven hours of surgery to prevent further damage. Doctors found the fifth cervical vertebra completely fractured-in short, a broken neck. "When that support goes, it's like taking out the keystone of an arch," said Dr. Patrick O'Leary, who implanted three titanium plates to stabilize the damaged cervical column. Byrd was feeling some sensation in his legs and, since the operation, his left wrist was growing stronger. Early use of prednisone, an anti-inflammatory drug, kept dangerous swelling down. Doctors were also using an experimental drug called Sygen, which could help regenerate Byrd's damaged nerve cells. But whether he would ever walk again remained uncertain. The victim's fortitude can help, says Buoniconti, who had to breathe with a ventilator for seven months after he was injured. "One moment you're a fiery defensive lineman, and the next moment you can't move," he says. "He's going to have to go through a lot of soul-searching to persuade himself that life is definitely not over."