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Patrick Hruby


My short, painful career as a football tackling dummy
As anyone who has ever played quarterback can tell you, the term "blindside hit" is a bit misleading. In reality, there are two hits: a defender hitting you – violently, without warning, like a naval torpedo – and you hitting the turf. Hard.

Both collisions hurt.

I say this from painful experience. And as someone who really ought to have known better. It's a sweltering mid-September afternoon, and I'm sprawled out on the patchy green grass of a community college soccer field in suburban Washington, D.C., swaddled in hip pads and shoulder pads and rib pads and a football helmet, plus compression shorts with honeycomb padding – in essence, armored diapers, akin to the ones Dwyane Wade wears. I'm searching for the football I just dropped, as well as my bleeding right elbow, which hopefully remains attached to my upper arm.
Problem is, I can't find anything. Probably because I'm still on my back, staring at the hazy, blue-white sky, wondering whether it's safe to move my head, moderating a debate between my brain (voiced by someone with senatorial gravitas, say, "NBC Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams) and every other part of my body (voiced by Lil Jon):

Brain: You just got blindsided by DC Divas middle linebacker Ivy Tillman. Everything is OK. You wanted this to happen. Now get up.

Everything else: WHAT?!

Williams wins. I lift my chin. It works! Phew! I see the camera guy, the sound guy, the PR guy, the missing red-white-and-blue football. I see my elbow. Attached. I see Tillman, already on her feet, utterly unfazed by our collision. I see gold text on her burgundy equipment bag, big block letters reading "POISON IVY." The nickname fits. Tillman is 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds, fast and powerful, the hard-hitting team captain of the Divas, a full-contact women's professional squad based in Washington. She's used to human car crashes. And me? I'm woozy. Too woozy to panic, which is good; too woozy to call things off, which is probably bad. I'm also the stupid sportswriter who asked for this, figuring that: (a) the only thing better than watching other people get blindsided for generous sums of money would be for me to do the same thing for free; (b) doing so would provide valuable insight into one of the most terrifying and exhilarating moments in football; (c) obtaining said insight would be significantly less painful if I had a woman do the hitting. Only now I'm questioning all of the above – in part because my hip is turning purple, in part because the same brain that came up with this brilliant scheme is sternly insisting I grab the ball and resume my role as human piñata.

Brain: C'mon, line up, we need to get more hits on tape. At least a half-dozen.

Everything else: WHAT?!

Like a truck – carrying a ton of bricks

"You want me to hit you?"

Fred Smoot sounds confused. And intrigued. The latter part has me worried. We're standing on a grassy slope near the Washington Redskins' practice field, and I'm trying to explain that no, Fred, I don't want you to hit me. I want someone else to hit me, hard, square in my back, all to better understand a violent, iconic impact that has become central to the game as blitz-heavy defenses scheme to attack the quarterback's blind side and pass-happy offenses scheme to protect the quarterback's blind side and freakishly athletic rushers battle freakishly athletic left tackles for increasingly large piles of money in an ever-evolving tit-for-tat arms race – chronicled in the best-selling book, "The Blind Side," by "Moneyball" author Michael Lewis – that invairably ends with some poor signal-caller eating turf, flailing around like an overturned turtle …

Smoot cuts me off.

"If you want the real feel, you need to not know it's coming," the veteran cornerback says. "Otherwise, you'll brace yourself and embrace the hit. A real QB is looking downfield. He's relaxed. So when he gets hit …"

Smoot rocks his head back, then forward, approximating a crash-test dummy in an exploding Volvo.

"… his neck snaps. But your neck probably won't."

Smoot seems disappointed. Gulp. What had I gotten myself into? And would it require a Steve Grogan-style neck roll? I spot Redskins defensive end Andre Carter. A 6-foot-4, 252-pounder who tallied 10½ sacks in the 2007 season, Carter looks like the end result of a secret CIA super-soldier project, one designed to separate quarterbacks from their faculties.

Carter is large. He is ripped. He is grinning as wide as Chesapeake Bay.

"There's nothing like a perfect kill shot on the QB," he says. "Home or away, when you hear the crowd go 'ooooh,' you know you did your job. A big hit gets everyone juiced."

Carter gets a faraway look.

"The quarterback is dazed. He's flustered. And the tackle is looking back, thinking, 'Oh, my gosh, what just happened?'"

Wait. Stop. The dazed part. Sounds not so good. Any way I can avoid that?

"You can't prepare," Carter advises. "Just brace for impact when you hit the ground."

Right. As previously mentioned, a blindside hit encompasses two collisions, and the second can be worse than the first. At least according to Redskins rookie quarterback Colt Brennan. During his first collegiate game, he recalls, a defender clobbered him from behind, lifted him off the ground, twisted him in midair and drove him into the turf. Brennan's parting gift? A separated shoulder.

Brennan wraps up his story – painful-looking pantomime included – and then tells me not to worry.

"Actually, a lot of blindside hits look really bad when you see them," he says, "but when you take them, they're not as painful."


"Really. They come as a surprise, and before you know it, you're just looking up from the ground and wondering what happened. Sometimes [you feel] more shock than actual hurt."

I'm not sure I believe this. This past December, a blindside hit knocked ironman quarterback Brett Favre out of a game against the Dallas Cowboys and nearly halted his record consecutive games started streak. Outside the Redskins' locker room, I find starting quarterback Jason Campbell. He concurs with Brennan. In fact, both men insist the element of surprise makes blindside hits less punishing than other tackles – because, as Campbell puts it, "Your muscles are relaxed, and you go with it."

"Don't clench up," Brennan advises. "Just sit there and meditate. Let the hit take you."

Right. Meditate. Be the hit. Very "Caddyshack." Got it.

"Are you going to have video of this?" Brennan asks.

He laughs. I laugh. I feel better. Relieved, even. Ready to pack my bags and join the hit on a jaunt through Europe. Until I run into Todd Collins.

A veteran backup who led the Redskins into last season's playoffs, Collins appears partially mummified, his right arm swaddled with ice bags and cloth bandages. (And this is after a no-hit practice.) Four days from now, Collins will be blindsided by New York Jets linebacker Marques Murrell in the second quarter of a preseason game and end up on his back, wincing, surrounded by the team's medical staff.

In other words, just the sort of hit I usually cheer.

"A blindside hit is like a truck hitting you," Collins says. "I mean, I've never been hit by a truck, but you don't see it coming. Then, all of the sudden, you get crushed. It doesn't feel too good."

I tell Collins about my assignment. He shoots me a quizzical look. I half expect him to ask if mental illness runs in my family.

Gamely, he offers some pointers:

• Get a good set of rib pads – they'll absorb some of the initial impact.

• Avoid low hits – the legs and knees are especially vulnerable (see Theismann, Joe, "Monday Night Football").

• Put getting hit out of your mind – the minute a quarterback starts thinking about the rush instead of focusing downfield, he's done as a pro.

• Forget about trying to roll with the hit. That's for stuntmen and ninjas. (Note: I added the ninja part.)

"When you get hit like that, there's no special technique; you're just going down any way the defender wants you to go down," Collins says. "Like a ton of bricks. But I guess you kind of get used to it."

Oh, so it gets easier after the first hit?

"I don't know," he says. "You might not make it to the second one."

Collins laughs. I think he's joking.

Hope he's joking.

Is he joking?

The physics of pain

A baseball bat smashes a half-dozen glass beakers. A driver smacks a golf ball in super slow-mo. Next comes a screen-filling montage of blindside hits, quarterbacks fumbling, then crumbling.

"In football, they say that linebackers love to tee off on quarterbacks," a voice-over intones. "So the question is, how much force is generated when a steamrolling defender tees off on a quarterback?"

I'm watching an episode of the television program "Sports Science." Cut to NFL linebacker Joey Porter: 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, forearms bulging, glaring at the camera. Porter, the voice-over says, defines force. I'm not inclined to quibble.

"If I have a free shot on the quarterback and it's a blindside hit, be ready for the backup to play," Porter says. Rather convincingly.

Scientists wire a 170-pound automotive crash-test dummy with force-measuring sensors. They plug the sensors into a laptop. Porter lowers his shoulders and begins to run.


A typical rear-impact car-crash simulation takes place at roughly 12 mph; Porter slams the dummy at 14 mph, delivering 1,160 pounds of force – the same amount of force generated by the kicking hind leg of a raging bull.

"On an average person," the voice-over says, "this hit could result in a 19 percent chance of severe spinal injury."

Again: Just what am I getting myself into? I need to do the math. In "The Physics of Football," Nebraska professor Dr. Timothy Gay calculates that Dick Butkus hit running backs with the force of a small adult killer whale. Using Gay's methodology, I determine that Tillman will be hitting me with 675 pounds of force – more like a female sea lion.

Here's how it works:

• According to Newton's Second Law, force equals mass times acceleration, or F=ma.

• To account for weight in pounds, modify the above equation to F=1/32.

• Tillman weighs 180 pounds; she runs a 5.0 40-yard dash, which puts her pre-hit speed at 8 yards per second, or 24 feet/sec.

• In a collision, Tillman's speed will go from 24 feet/sec to 0 feet/sec in roughly 0.2 seconds.

• Acceleration measures change in speed over time, which means Tillman's acceleration in our collision is minus-120 feet/sec squared.

• To figure the force of the hit, just plug in the numbers:

F=(1/32)(180 lbs)(-120 ft/s squared)
F=675 lbs

Head hurt? Mine, too. And that's another potential problem with blindside hits – math aside, they can literally make your head hurt, because they increase the likelihood of a concussion.

During any football collision, pads and helmets work by absorbing and/or redistributing the total energy transferred between hitter and hittee upon impact. However, protective gear does not prevent the sudden, whiplash-like head acceleration common to blindside hits – acceleration linked to concussions and brain trauma.

Dr. J.J. Crisco, director of the bioengineering lab at Brown University's Department of Orthopedics, currently is conducting a concussion study in which the helmets for the Brown, Dartmouth and Virginia Tech football squads have been wired to measure head acceleration. He suspects that when players know a hit is coming, they tense their muscles, forcing head and body to act as a single, heavy object. By contrast, when players are blindsided, their muscles are still relaxed, leaving their heads to act as independent, lighter objects that accelerate at much greater rates.

"Right now, our best guess in terms of how concussions work – at the cellular level, it's more complicated than this – but at the brain tissue level, it's that the brain hits the skull and reverberates," Crisco says. "So the acceleration of the head, whether you saw the hit coming or not, will determine if you're going to get injured."

Hmmm. Sounds like Brennan and Campbell had it wrong, while Carter had it right: On a blindside hit, don't go with the flow. Instead, prepare all systems for impact.

"Staying loose could make sense based on what position you're in – a knee could hyperextend if you're all locked up," Crisco advises. "But as far as the head goes, there is no doubt in my mind that you want your neck tight."

Neck tight. Knees bent. Await the oncoming sea lion. Duly noted. A few days before my meeting with Tillman, I run everything past Tom Judge, a Washington, D.C., lawyer and former Naval Academy defensive lineman. Actually, check that: I try to run everything past him. Ten seconds into our phone chat, he silences me with a single question.

"Do you have insurance for this?"

Hit parade

"You're tall," Tillman observes. "Good." Not good because we're about to play volleyball or because I would make a good visual impression during a presidential debate. Nuh-uh. Good because I make a bigger target. Good because her shoulder pads line up just so with the small of my back.

For a moment, I'm overcome with gratitude. For the guy who invented the rib protector.

The day is here. My rib protector is tightly fastened, held in place by electrical tape. I'm wearing a bright red jersey, the color of a matador's flag. (I'm beginning to question that choice.) I have a first-aid kit and two dozen rolls of extra-soft toilet paper, the latter to strap around my torso. (Smoot suggested phone books, since they can "take any collision;" I went with TP, the better to absorb coughed-up blood following a possible kidney laceration.)

Tillman and I conduct a short interview on the soccer field. We talk about blindside hits, how they energize the defense and demoralize the offense, how an inability to protect the quarterback's blind side makes it almost impossible to run any sort of offense. Walloping the quarterback from behind is more than a sack, more than an opportunity to inflict pain; it's an act of dominance, a sudden, terrible statement that you are not in control. It's mentally unsettling. I think back to something Tillman said during a previous conversation, when I asked her about the first time she put on pads and hit someone:

"I realized how forceful the impact could be and how forceful I can be," she said. "When you think about it, it's an awesome responsibility. I'm a social worker, in the helping profession. But to know I can hurt someone, that was like, 'Wow.'"

Tillman ran sprints in high school. She threw discus and shot put in college. She started playing flag football after getting her master's degree -- just looking for a way to stay active -- and later discovered the Divas. She led the team in tackles while playing cornerback, later moved to linebacker and once knocked an opposing running back out of a game. Next season, she might move to defensive end, a position she already has played in practice.

"I've been able to get to the quarterback," she says. "But the quarterback doesn't get touched, ever."

Tillman laughs.

"That's a good thing, because we need our quarterback."

Gulp. Tillman buckles her chin strap. Time to start. I absorb my first hit – it's shocking and a bit numbing, like running into a street sign – and then another. Tillman demonstrates ball strips, smacking my hands with her forearm; one particularly forceful blow sends me tumbling, heels over head. After a half-dozen collisions, I start to grasp why blindside hits are so game-changing, beyond the inevitable grass stains and blood: The more you get hit, the more you expect to get hit again and the less you think about anything else. It's almost Pavlovian. Dropping back, I don't notice the camera, the boom mic, the giant silver reflector, the guys playing touch football nearby, the joggers circling the off-field track, the brutally oppressive heat. I forget I'm sweating, forget the angry purple bruises forming on my left arm and right hip, forget all the helpful advice I've been given: Bend your knees. Stiffen your neck. Be the hit. I can't imagine reading a defensive alignment or spotting an open receiver. I can't imagine typing a coherent sentence. I hardly even notice Tillman. I'm just waiting for the next thud. And I don't know how – or if – actual quarterbacks ever get used to this. They're definitely braver than I thought.

Crazier, too.

Speaking of which: Following each hit, I find myself laughing – off-kilter and too happy, nearly giggling, like someone who has just realized that the white light all around them is actually a face full of airbag. Collins was right: Getting blindsided is akin to an auto wreck. And in that instant between upright and prone, before and after, between the ice-maker crunching of pads and the slip-slide static of crushed grass, you feel almost weightless and fully helpless. You go down any way they want you to go down. Getting up is a gift.

Later, driving home, I check and re-check my rearview mirror. Compulsively.

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