In 1995, during a Monday Night Football game against the Oakland Raiders, I hit Oakland quarterback Jeff Hostetler in the throat with my elbow and was ejected from the game. It is not something I’m proud of and it’s not something I like to talk about. But on the heels of Bears linebacker Danny Trevathan’s hit on Packers receiver Davante Adams last night and some of the responses to that hit, I think it’s necessary to hear a perspective from inside the helmet.
On that night in ’95 I caused a fumble by hitting running back Harvey Williams, and our cornerback Lionel Washington picked the ball up and started running. I turned to look for someone to block. My preference would’ve been to hit an offensive lineman but when Hostetler, who had been knocked down by our safety Steve Atwater, popped up in front of me I went to block him. He moved back away from me so I extended my elbow out and made contact with his upper chest/throat.
Everything I just described took place in about four-and-a-half seconds, and that moment when I extended my elbow was in the blink of an eye. It was an instinct to make the block; I didn’t do it on purpose, I know that it looked bad and I wish it wouldn’t have happened.
Yes, I did want to knock the heck out of Hostetler. That would’ve looked great in film sessions with my teammates after a 31-0 victory. But I did not want that to happen and I did not want to injure Hostetler. But that’s what happened.
The following week was the worst football week of my career. I was ejected from a nationally-televised game in the first quarter, fined $12,500, had to write a letter to the NFL Rules Committee chairman explaining my actions, and had several conversations with the league office explaining what happened.
But that wasn’t the worst thing. The worst thing was that the following week on a nationally broadcasted pregame TV show, three Hall of Famers called me a dirty player and a cheap shot — Mike Ditka, Joe Gibbs and Joe Montana all agreed.
I had a flashback to that incident last night and this morning reading some of the comments about the Trevathan hit.
What I saw was a defensive player doing exactly what every defensive player in the NFL should do and is coached to do: Play as hard as you can and hustle as fast as you can to the ball until you hear the whistle. That is exactly what Danny Trevathan did on that play. And he responded the way that I did, explaining afterward: “I regret the level I hit him at,” and, “I was just trying to make a play.”
I know what people are going to say: Don’t hit him in the head. Only that feels like the most ridiculous thing you can say, and to be honest, my initial response to that would be, “That’s brilliant. If only someone had thought of that!”
But seriously, the notion that you can place any of your body parts in any position during a collision like that is a fantasy. I’ve said this many times on Danny, Dave and Moore and almost every other weekend on the Seahawks pre- and post-game radio show: Tackling in professional football is not like a scene from The Matrix. You can’t stop in midair, you can’t control what the other player does with his head, and you can’t freeze time. A football play is an explosion that occurs in a matter of seconds — and honestly, it most closely resembles a car accident. Don’t be fooled by your HD television screen and super Slo-Mo; human reaction time has a speed limit. When you see the intersection of two players on a big open field, both of them running faster than 99 percent of humans on earth, there is no planning. As a matter of fact, I think it’s an accident that there aren’t more plays like the one we saw last night. Everything happens so fast — and for players like me, sometimes you have to see the film to know exactly what you did.
I try not to be heavy-handed because I played and others did not. But if you haven’t been out there in those situations, how can you judge a player like Danny Trevathan? For the players in the NFL that are criticizing Trevathan—there’s an old saying about glass houses and stone throwing.
With the number of injuries I had in the NFL, I do not want to see anyone get hurt. But this is football, so think twice before you judge the character of a player based on some of these hits. If the best athletes in the world can’t control it, how could you?