In the wake of the NFL's decision to take a tougher stance against illegal hits to the neck and head area, as well as the horrific injury sustained by Rutgers reserve defensive lineman Eric LeGrand (an injury that left him paralyzed below the waist) two questions crossed my mind. First, I wondered if the game of football, particularly at the NFL level, would gradually morph into a product that was not all that similar to the game we know and love today. Second, I thought about whether it was worth it for these young men to (literally) risk life and limb to pursue a football career.
Sure, the prospect of fame is enticing. And yes, the select few who advance to the NFL make hefty salaries, even if only for a few years. Still, story after story has surfaced in recent years about the dangers of playing the game - be it stories like LeGrand's, or tales of former players living miserable post-retirement lives as a result of cumulative brain damage incurred during their playing careers.
I'm a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and I spend a sizable chunk of time each week running a blog about my team. All last week, after James Harrison was fined $75,000 for hits the NFL deemed illegal and unnecessarily violent, the community of Steelers fans on Behind the Steel Curtain discussed the questions I was struggling with. Many thought the inherent violence of the game could never be legislated away without compromising the sport. Others thought it was possible for the league to increase player safety without fundamentally altering the game.
At just the right time, I was introduced to the story of Adam Taliaferro, the former Penn State defensive back who was left paralyzed by an injury sustained in 2000 as a freshman in Happy Valley. Doctors told Taliaferro it was unlikely that he would walk again. Imagine how frightening that news would be to you, let alone at an age when you feel invincible to life's random perils.
Taliaferro was determined, however, to defy the odds and live a full life. He is fully mobile today. You'd never guess that he was once holed up in a hospital, unable to move his extremities. It didn't even take him too long to get back on his feet. On September 1st, 2001, Taliaferro walked onto the field at Beaver Stadium, met by long, loud roars of support and admiration from the tens of thousands in attendance.
Late last week, Taliaferro joined 93.7 The Fan in Pittsbugh to reflect on his long journey back, the paralysis suffered by Rutgers defensive lineman Eric LeGrand, how he plans to be a pillar of support for LeGrand and his family when the time is right, and what he's up to now. (Read a full transcript at SRI.)
On what he knows about the injury sustained Rutgers’ DL Eric LeGrand’s last weekend against Army, an injury that left him paralyzed below the neck:
"Yeah, you know Eric from what I hear had an injury last week that was very similar to mine and when someone goes down on the field, my heart goes out to him knowing exactly what he’s going through. I’m sure just the uncertainly that’s going through his mind and not knowing what the future holds for himself, but I want to be there for him as a sounding board and say, hey, I’ve been through it and we’re going to help you get through it too."
On what that first week is like after sustaining a life-changing injury like that:
"Oh certainly. During the first week like you said, I was kind of out of it, but at the beginning of the second week I really started to understand exactly what happened. And the first thing that went through my mind was why me? Of all the players that played this game, why did this happen to me? And I went through that for a couple of weeks, but you can only say why me for so long, and then you’ve got to really get in the mindset of I can’t change the past, I can really do now is work hard and try to change the future and try to get myself out of this predicament."
On if there was a singular moment during his rehabilitation process when the light when on for him that he could actually get through this:
"Yeah, for me it was probably three, three and half weeks after my injury. I felt my toe; I was able to move my toe a little bit. So when I had that movement, even though it was very, very slight, that’s when I said I have a chance, I’m going to get through this thing. And that’s when I started to amp up my rehab and really started to get after it hard. I think it was that three week mark but I said, you know what, let’s work hard and get this done."
Taliaferro was also asked whether he would let his son play football. His answer might surprise you given what he's had to deal with in his life.
"Absolutely. I don’t have any kids, but if I do have a son, I’m going to have him out there at 7. I just love the game of football, I still get up to most of the Penn State games, and I think it’s a fantastic sport."
Taliaferro loved the game and clearly still loves the game, and does not seem at all bitter that he was the recipient of some awful luck. Things have gone well for him off the field, however:
"After I finished at Penn State, I went to Law School, actually up at Rutgers. And I’ve been working as an attorney the last two years specializing in corporate litigation. I really can’t complain, and I’ve just been blessed in the last ten years."
Here's a video that chronicles Talifaerro's rehabilitation.