American Football: Injury to Byrd has a warning

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The Independent Online
ANOTHER frenetic week's activity in the NFL was rendered virtually meaningless by the news from New York that Dennis Byrd, a defensive lineman with the Jets, had broken his neck in the game against the Kansas City Chiefs and may be paralysed from the waist down.

Byrd, 26, collided with his team- mate Scott Mersereau early in the third quarter as they sacked the Chiefs quarterback, Dave Krieg. The two ran into each other, and Byrd's helmet appeared to smack directly into Mersereau's chest and shoulder. 'The hit was hard enough to bend me over backward,' Mersereau, who was able to walk off the field, said.

Byrd was lifted carefully on to a stretcher and placed on a golf cart, surrounded by trainers and doctors. It is not yet clear whether he has been permanently paralysed. Yesterday he was in a stable condition in a New York hospital, but still had no feeling in his legs and only partial use of his arms.

After the game, which the Chiefs won 23-7, all the talk was of Byrd. 'Dennis's injury makes you reflect on how fragile things are, and what's important and what's not,' Bruce Coslet, the Jets head coach, said.

'You risk your life, and becoming a vegetable, when you go out there,' Mario Johnson, who replaced Byrd, said. 'I'm so sore somtimes my wife can't even touch me. The people watching on television don't understand. I started playing football when I was eight against 12-year-olds. My mother wanted me to stop, but my father told me to play if I wanted to. I still want to, but something like this makes me think.'

Byrd's injury underlines the dangers of a sport that is built on brutality, and may be placing its combatants in greater jeopardy than ever before. Just over a year ago Mike Utley, an offensive lineman with the Detroit Lions fell on his head while making a block. Utley shattered the sixth vertebra in his neck and is paralysed from the waist down. Amid all the hype, glory and glamour, it is easy to forget that every shuddering hit must take its toll, and that when 20- stone athletes pile into each other it is unrealistic to expect them to always be able to dust themselves down and do it again.

Coslet, though, defended his profession: 'It's a great sport, a wonderful sport. Unfortunately, things like this happen. People drop dead going to the cafeteria.'

The injury certainly overshadowed everything else, but on the playing side the San Francisco 49ers became the first team to clinch a play-off place - though only just. They were leading 20-14 when the visiting Philadelphia Eagles went for a fourth-and-15 with 36 seconds remaining. Randall Cunningham then connected with Calvin Williams. John Madden told the television audience that he thought Williams had made a first down, but when the officials measured the Eagles were left short and the 49ers were given possession. 'They say it's a game of inches. It was a millimetre today,' Dana Hall, the San Francisco safety, said.

The game's other significance was that Jerry Rice, the 49ers peerless wide receiver, equalled the NFL record of 100 touchdown receptions set by Steve Largent.

The New Orleans Saints remain a game behind the 49ers after their 24-13 victory over Miami. As usual their fearsome defense settled the game, sacking Dan Marino five times, limiting the visitors' rushing attack to a derisory 58 yards, and scoring a couple of touchdowns.

It was another good day for San Diego, who won their seventh game in eight by beating the Los Angeles Raiders 27-3. The Chargers' defense was a little less effective than usual, allowing Eric Dickerson to rush for 103 yards, but the team exploited their opportunities to the full, notably by scoring touchdowns from two turnovers.

The day's surprise was the 16-13 defeat of the Buffalo Bills by the Indianapolis Colts, who had lost four in a row. The Colts came up with a game plan which made use of Charles Arbuckle, a tight end usually confined to special teams. For all the Bills knew of him, it could have been Fatty Arbuckle.

NFL: Cleveland 27 Chicago 14; Kansas City 23 New York Jets 7; New Orleans 24 Miami 13; Atlanta 34 New England 0; Washington 41 Phoenix 3; Pittsburgh 21 Cincinnati 9; Green Bay 19 Tampa Bay 14; Indianapolis 16 Buffalo 13 (OT); Minnesota 31 Los Angeles Rams 17; San Francisco 20 Philadelphia 14; San Diego 27 Los Angeles Raiders 3.

----------------------------------------------------------------- NFL STANDINGS ----------------------------------------------------------------- AMERICAN CONFERENCE Eastern Division W L T F A Buffalo 9 3 0 314 199 Miami 8 4 0 282 217 Indianapolis 5 7 0 163 266 NY Jets 3 9 0 173 249 New England 2 10 0 162 294 Central Division Pittsburgh 9 3 0 247 162 Houston 7 5 0 270 218 Cleveland 6 6 0 194 190 Cincinnati 4 8 0 206 269 Western Division Kansas City 8 4 0 251 179 Denver 7 4 0 175 207 San Diego 7 5 0 214 182 LA Raiders 5 7 0 179 198 Seattle 1 10 0 73 218 NATIONAL CONFERENCE Eastern Division W L T F A Dallas 10 2 0 293 165 Washington 7 5 0 219 190 Philadelphia 7 5 0 269 188 NY Giants 5 7 0 251 279 Phoenix 3 9 0 187 282 Central Division Minnesota 9 3 0 307 191 Green Bay 6 6 0 187 232 Chicago 4 8 0 241 288 Tampa Bay 4 8 0 212 275 Detroit 3 9 0 217 253 Western Division San Francisco 10 2 0 339 196 New Orleans 9 3 0 235 154 Atlanta 5 7 0 234 296 LA Rams 4 8 0 217 264 -----------------------------------------------------------------

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