How Detroit Lions are fighting through their fear: ‘You know what you signed up for’

Detroit Free Press

It’s scary, Jason Cabinda was saying, scary for him, his teammates, their families, their coaches.

“Everyone’s been talking about it the last couple days,” said the Detroit Lions fullback. “I’m sure there are plenty of guys who took their own time to say their own prayers. When I first saw it happen, I said a prayer.”

The Lions began practice with a prayer, too, as I would bet most teams did around the league Wednesday, as they returned to their facilities for the first time since Damar Hamlin collapsed during Monday night’s game between Buffalo and Cincinnati.

Tuesday is a day off for NFL teams (though some players still come in for treatment or light workouts.)

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Talk of what happened to Hamlin — he had to be revived twice on the field and remains in ICU in critical condition — dominated the conversation, as you would imagine.

“Really just talking about how scary it is,” Cabinda said.

Again, there’s that word: Scary. Which leads us to these words: How does Cabinda step onto the football field again without thinking about what happened to Hamlin?

Because he has thought about it, as surely every NFL player has, as surely most football players have. The shocking scene from Cincinnati will do that, especially when, as Cabinda said, it looked like a regular play.

A regular tackle. A regular hit.

That’s the most troubling part, he said: It looked kinda normal, before it didn’t. And then it looked hellish.

And if he wants to play football again, if he wants to play football this Sunday night in Green Bay, he can’t think about that at all, not on the field, anyway.

“You can’t afford to,” he said.

This doesn’t mean it’s easy. He’s human. Which also means he understands how some might look at the game he plays and look at what happened Monday night in Cincinnati and wonder why he’d ever step foot on the grass — or turf — again.

“I do think,” he said, that “if something like that happened to me, I would probably be done. That would be enough. You would think seeing it happen to someone else would be enough (too), but you love the game. That’s the reality. Whether that’s right or that’s wrong, whether that makes us sick or crazy for loving it, that’s who we are.”

Identity is deep like that. And tricky. Though identity isn’t the only motivation in life.

Besides, if we’re gonna suggest football players are sick or crazy after Monday night’s tragedy then we’re almost all sick or crazy, because we all do things — sometimes every day — that carry risk.

I drove 35 miles to Allen Park on Wednesday to talk to Cabinda and his coaches and teammates. That involved risk.

I made the drive knowing that at any point another driver could hit his brakes too hard or miss me in their blind spot and cut me off trying to change lanes in order to make the quickly approaching freeway exit.

That last one happened a few years ago on a rush-hour interstate outside Chicago. The driver smashed into my left rear side. I spun around, powerless over the car, as trucks and SUVS tried to avoid hitting me. Somehow, I walked away without much more than a concussion and the scare of my life.

I was damn lucky. State troopers couldn’t believe I’d survived. I drove again that night. I knew the risk.

Cabinda knows his risks, too.

“You know what you signed up for,” he said. “That’s just the way (our) game is played. You can’t take that way. It is what it is. We all know.”

Still, “nobody expects something like that to happen. You do your best to have your best techniques out there and not put yourself in that type of danger.”

The Lions’ fullback is also the Lions’ NFL Players Association representative. His message to his fellow players was that everyone in the stadium to help the players’ safety did their job.

“We feel like, from the PA side, they did a really good job,” he said. “This would be a lot different if things went sideways and they didn’t respond fast enough.”

For some, the message to their families will be tougher.

“There’s guys who have wives or kids and it’s not easy to see that happen and then look at your wife and kids and then say, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna go do that tomorrow.’ That’s not an easy thing.”

Just as it hasn’t been easy because the play itself looked so routine. This wasn’t a head-to-head hit.

It wasn’t, as Cabinda said, “a head-down (hit) or bad form or bad technique.” Nor was it the result of an underlying medical condition. (At least according to the information so far.)

Had there been, Cabinda said, justification to step back on the field might be easier. Because you start thinking like that “to justify it in your own head.”

Which is where so many NFL players are this week, to be frank. Thinking about the random and violent nature of their game. Telling themselves that all the training and practice will protect them, at least to a degree. Leaning into the rarity of what happened. Finding their own internal peace with the game they play. Praying for Hamlin and checking their phones for updates on his condition as often as they can.

And so, they began with prayer as a team. And they prayed on their own. And they talked about it when they broke into their position-group gatherings. And they talked more when they got back into the locker room.

“At the end of the day, everybody is heightened with anxiety,” said Cabinda.

Mostly for Hamlin’s fate. But also, for their own. Until the next game starts, and they do what they must do to forget about what could happen while they’re doing what they do.

As running back D’Andre Swift said: “We put our life on the line.”

They knew it before Monday night. They know it differently now.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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