Eric Smith hit Anquan Boldin so hard, he knocked himself out.
In a Sept. 28, 2008 game against the Arizona Cardinals, Smith, a Jets safety, wasn’t even the first defender to the ball. He might not have launched himself into Boldin had he known that teammate Kerry Rhodes, who had jumped shoulder-first into Boldin from the other side, was putting the Cardinals receiver in a position that would make the result not only gruesome for Boldin, but for Smith, too.
The Cardinals were down by 21 points with about half a minute left in a stupidly entertaining six-touchdown game by Jets QB Brett Favre; it was basically a meaningless score. But quarterback Kurt Warner threw to Boldin in the end zone, because he had to, and it was the right call, until it turned into a whole lot of effort for a very big loss.
Rhodes’s initial hit braced Boldin’s head when Smith went into him; there was no give. It was perfect, horrendous timing, followed by the obligatory fencing response, a hushed crowd, a stretcher, and a prayer circle.
Boldin had his face rearranged; he needed “surgery for a fractured sinus membrane, which required 7 plates and 40 screws to fix.” Smith was reportedly knocked out by the hit and felt “groggy” because of it. In today’s NFL, he might have been checked for a concussion. At the time, Jets head coach Eric Mangini said he believed Smith was fine and ready to come back, pending his appeal of his one-game suspension for the hit.
Miraculously, this hit didn’t kill anyone—like I thought it did when I watched it live—nor did it markedly shorten either player’s career. Smith returned after the Jets’ bye week and played in the team’s next game. Boldin somehow missed only two games before coming back for the Cardinals as they ended their 2008 campaign with a Super Bowl loss. He didn’t seem particularly fazed when a New York Times reporter had him watch a replay of the hit a couple of months later:
“I can see how people were worried,” he said. “Had I seen a teammate go down like that, I probably would have been a little frantic.”
But he could be blasé about himself.
“That’s always been my attitude,” Boldin said. “Some people say that’s the best part of me and that’s the worst part of me, my nonchalance.”
After having his face broken, Boldin played for eight more seasons, missing a total of six games among them. He retired Sunday because he wanted to pursue more humanitarian work. “My life’s purpose is bigger than football,” his statement read.