We're doing a season-long NFL roundtable with our friends at Slate. Check back here each week as a rotating cast of football watchers discusses the weekend's key plays, coaching decisions, and traumatic brain injuries.
On a Thursday night in 2008, Willie McGinest nearly decapitated me. I was a tight end for the Broncos; he was a linebacker for the Browns. I was in the slot on the left. He was the strong-side linebacker, or "Sam," on the right. I ran a seam route that took me into the middle of the field versus a two-safety look. He dropped into coverage. Having no receivers in his zone to hold him, he was free to keep his eyes up at anyone who might be coming across the field.
The ball brought me further across the middle than the route required, and I had to change direction to track it. At the last minute I laid out. Parallel to the ground, I snagged the ball with my fingertips and brought it in to my body. It was the greatest catch of my NFL career. It was the greatest catch of anyone's career. It was the greatest, most acrobatic catch ever known to man ever.
Well, almost. Here's how the play-by-play describes what happened:
(4:38) 6-J.Cutler pass incomplete deep middle to 81-N.Jackson (55-W.McGinest). DEN-81-N.Jackson was injured during the play. His return is Doubtful.
Here's how I would describe it: Before I hit the ground, something large hit me in the head. I know now that it was Willie, flying in at a death angle, dropping his shoulder and running it through my temple into my tonsils. The blow dislodged the ball and knocked me out. It was the kind of borderline hit that today might get him fined. Being knocked out in a football game is not a painful event at impact. It is a dimensional vacuum through an extremely narrow wormhole. It is a piano falling on your head in the middle of your recital. It's a system reboot. My adrenaline was always too high to feel the pain of a hit, anyway. When I came to, I didn't know where I was. You're lying on the grass, Nate. The crowd is roaring. But what are they roaring about? Oh, yes, it's for you. You got knocked out. Yay! His brain is bleeding!
Before I could think about getting up, Greek, our trainer, was kneeling over me, supporting my head and neck in his hands, urging me not to move. All I wanted to do was get up and get off the field, but he insisted I take a moment. "They're going to a TV timeout, Nate. Just relax." The game was on the NFL Network. Even in my cranial reboot phase, I knew that at that moment, they'd be replaying the hit in slow motion. I also knew that my mother was watching back in California. And I knew that Greek was holding my head and neck. So I started moving around my legs and arms to let my family know I wasn't paralyzed.
Eventually I got up and walked off the field. Then I spent the last four minutes of the game standing at attention next to our offensive coaches to let them know I was ready to go back in. I could very well have been killed, and here I was champing at the bit to get back out on the field. That game was all that mattered. We were rallying. Jay Cutler was having a big game. I was finally getting some good offensive action. Let me back in, Coach! I'm fine. But I wasn't fine. I had a brain injury. But what did I need that for? I already knew the plays. As long as I could run, I didn't care. I battled an endless cycle of groin and hamstring injuries that I had no remedy for. No matter what I did, eventually, something would pop. But nothing popped this time except my brain against my skull. No big deal. I could deal with headaches.
And I had a massive one on the plane ride home. I sat in my seat looking straight ahead and tried to thaw out my frozen brain stem with an NFL-prohibited mid-flight cocktail. Players used to be allowed to drink beer on the flight home. (In Thursday's big Associated Press story, former players now suing the league talked about the cans of beer that were tucked into the airplane seat pockets, so everyone would have something to wash down the pills.) But Roger Goodell changed all of that. He banned cans of beer. Big surprise, hard booze now finds its way on the plane. And hard booze found its way into the lemonade in my Dixie cup. I approached our team doctor as the flight closed in on Denver and asked him if he could give me something for the pain. He said the best he could do was one Vicodin and one muscle relaxer. "Really, Doc? That's it? You're gonna make me hit the streets for this one?"
"Sorry, Nate," he said with a chuckle, not knowing if I was kidding, and he handed me two stupid pills. Since it was a Thursday, we had three extra days of recovery time before the next game. I lay in bed for all three of them, unable to move. The Vicodin and muscle relaxer didn't make it off the plane so I did what I said I would do. I hit the streets—weed, a few pills, nothing heavy. By the time Monday rolled around, I was well enough to put on my clothes and go into work. I medicated myself all week and had to wear a neck roll to limit my range of motion. My teammates knew I was hurting so they propped me up and eased off in practice whenever they could. We took care of each other like that. I also had an acupuncture treatment that cut through my flesh and sank into my spine like the American flag into the moondirt, unleashing an electric pain through my body and bringing tears to my eyes and those of future generations of Jacksons. My neck still hurts. So does my head, I think. I'm not really sure. Damn you, Willie. Damn you.