Carolina Panthers

Career-changing injuries on most players' minds in NFL

Former Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper is driven off the field after injuring his knee during the Vikings' loss to Carolina in Charlotte on Oct. 30, 2005. Culpepper tore his anterior cruciate, medial collateral and posterior cruciate ligaments.
Former Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper is driven off the field after injuring his knee during the Vikings' loss to Carolina in Charlotte on Oct. 30, 2005. Culpepper tore his anterior cruciate, medial collateral and posterior cruciate ligaments.

CHARLOTTE -- Granted, the guys who get hurt have the worse end of the deal -- the physical pain, the long and arduous rehabs, if they're able to return at all.

But in professional football, those who do the hurting have hurdles of their own to overcome, dealing with some emotions that seem unusual to them, and the knowledge that by simply doing their jobs they can prevent others from doing the same.

Last week, Detroit quarterback Daunte Culpepper downplayed the significance of coming back to Bank of America Stadium, where his career nearly ended with a 2005 knee injury. Likewise, the guys on the other side of the equation have to dismiss their own role in it, or else they could drive themselves crazy.

On Oct. 30, 2005, Culpepper lost three of the four ligaments that held his right knee together, and nearly a promising career. The then-Minnesota quarterback scrambled down the middle of the field for an 18-yard gain, but as he began to slide, was hit low from the right by cornerback Chris Gamble and high from the left by safety Mike Minter. Three years later, he's still working his way back, initially retiring but deciding to come back with the Lions a week ago.

"I knew when I hit him it was a good shot," Minter said, recalling the play. "I didn't see Gam at first, and when I hit Culpepper, I went through him. I could feel his body kind of torque around. I knew it was a big hit, I knew I gave it to him pretty good.

"But then you look around after you get up and he's still down, and that's the only way you know something bad happened."

What happens next is where it gets a little unusual for defensive players, who then have to get up and try to do it again to the next guy. Minter, an ordained minister, acknowledged it's a process that's counter-intuitive to his training as a tackler.

There's concern, and a sort of remorse, but not so much lest it becomes crippling.

"You can't live by guilt, no matter what you do," Minter said. "You have to understand that it's part of the game. It would be different if you were trying to cheap-shot somebody, or doing something intentionally, then you should feel guilty. But you have to separate that, because putting that man down's what you're out there to do.

"When you do it, you feel bad, and then you pray for the guy. There's really nothing else you can do. You can't beat yourself up, because that's part of your job description. If you lose that intensity, and slow up because you're trying not to hurt people, then you're either going to get hurt yourself or you're not going to do your job right."

That Minter acknowledged a tinge of internal conflict might be because he's retired and now deals with the aches and pains that accompany a career of flinging yourself into others with abandon.

Current defensive players have to make a bit of a bargain with themselves while playing. They have to go all out, trying to drop opponents with great and potentially harmful force. They also have to not worry about the consequences at the time.

Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis was a rookie in 2005, drafted for his ability to make explosive hits. Green Bay rookie receiver Terrence Murphy, a second-round pick from Texas A&M, was starting to show some promise.

When they met in Charlotte, Murphy's career came to an abrupt end.

The two collided helmet-to-helmet after Murphy scooped up a bobbled kickoff, though replays showed it to be a legal hit. The hit cast a pall over the Monday Night Football crowd, as Murphy was immobilized, his facemask was removed and he was rushed to Carolinas Medical Center. He later was diagnosed with a bruised spinal cord and stenosis, or a narrowing of the spine.

Though he made inquiries to teams who liked him coming out of college, none were willing to sign off on putting him back on the field, and his career was over.

"It's an unfortunate situation," Davis said. "We all play this game to provide for our families. You never want to injure anybody, let alone end someone's career. That's just the nature of this game. It's a tough, physical sport, and you know how it is when you sign up. You never want to do it, but it happens."

That's the kind of shrug you almost need to adopt to continue.

As Minter said, "some of the hardest hits, guys bounce right back up from." There's an element of dumb, bad luck to many such injuries.

Tampa Bay quarterback Chris Simms had to have his spleen removed after taking a number of hard hits from the Panthers in 2006, enough hits that isolating which one caused the injury was impossible. Likewise, Bucs running back Cadillac Williams was the victim of a freak injury against the Panthers.

Last September, the former first-round pick was near the end of an 18-yard gain toward the Carolina sideline. Safety Chris Harris came from the other side of the field and unloaded on him, when Williams' right knee buckled beneath him, dragging behind as Harris' momentum forced him the other way.

Before Williams had fully hit the ground, Panthers receiver Steve Smith (standing a few feet away on the sidelines) was waving for help, knowing he was in great pain. Williams' patella tendon had popped, and he was only activated from the physically unable to perform list last week, though he probably won't play today.

"You kind of feel a little like it was your fault," Harris said. "The intent in this game is never to harm anyone. Nothing's ever done maliciously out there, not on my part, anyway. You just pray and hope they come back at 100 percent and back to their full ability.

"It is a fine line. When I go out there, I'm trying to hit people, and hit people hard. Never to hurt anyone, but that's the nature of the business, that's my job description. Your intent is never to hurt anyone, but you still need that intimidation factor, and you've got to have an enforcer mentality out there."

Asked if he ever talked to Williams, Harris looked down, shook his head and said he never had.

"You do feel bad," Harris said. "I never got a chance to talk to him, but obviously I wish him well and I'm glad he's back."

That kind of unspoken acknowledgment works both ways.

When Smith suffered a broken ankle in 2004, he was furious and didn't want to hear from anyone.

He was dragged down from behind by Green Bay linebacker Hannibal Navies, a former teammate. Navies got him from behind, snapping Smith's left fibula and causing enough ligament damage that after five weeks of waiting, the Panthers shut Smith down for the season by putting him on injured reserve.

Smith still thinks it was a horse-collar tackle, made illegal the following year.

"When he did it, I was hot, I was upset," Smith said.

The two talked about the incident later, with Navies telling Smith he was sorry.

"I really wasn't looking for that; he said he didn't mean to do it, and that was good enough for me," Smith said. "Sometimes when you're in that position, it's just what you need.

"It depends on the person who did it and the person receiving it. 'Hey sorry, I blew out your knee, tore your ankle up.' It matters, it just depends on who's receiving and how it was given, and all that stuff."

Mostly, because of the job they perform, they don't talk about it. Thinking about it would be to open the door to vulnerability, to mortality. So as much as it might gnaw at their conscience, they push it aside as long as they're playing, knowing they could be on the other end of it any moment.

"It reminds you, you never know what play could be your last," Harris said. "That's why I try to play every play 100 percent, because I know this could be the last play I play in the league.

"You don't like to think about it," he added, pausing. "But it's the reality of this sport, the reality of this business."

Visit Herald reporter Darin Gantt's Panthers blog and listen to his new weekly podcast for Panthers updates and analysis at

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