Coming off the edge unblocked, Alabama cornerback DeMarcus Milliner had Denarius Moore squared up and in his sights.
Just before diving his direction, Moore slipped.
Falling backward, exposed and vulnerable, there was nothing the Tennessee receiver could do.
The violent facemask-to-facemask collision that occurred milliseconds later was unpleasant to say the least. Moore, who suffered a concussion, was left on the field in a fog as Milliner was congratulated by teammates on the second play of Alabama’s 41-10 win over the Vols last Saturday in Knoxville.
The scene is a familiar one at all levels of the sport. In the NFL, defenders are being slapped with fines and suspensions for hits determined unnecessarily violent and dangerous.
It begs the question: at what point does the violence cross the line?
Alabama coach Nick Saban said that there is line can be hard to define.
“When you hit with your shoulder, you can actually hit a guy with your head,” Saban said. “But I also think that it’s important that we all pay attention to player safety and awareness that you don’t go helmet to helmet or head to head or something that might enhance an injury for you or the other guy.”
Watching the Alabama/Tennessee game back in Decatur was former Crimson Tide defensive back Benny Perrin and his wife Courtney.
His cheer was almost involuntary when Milliner met Moore.
So was her cringe.
Once a right cornerback himself, the self-described “headhunter” who grew up idolizing Jack Tatum knows what it’s like delivering a game-ending blow to an opposing receiver. Courtney, though, was a trauma nurse who has seen her share of head and neck injuries. But since Moore’s injury didn’t extend past a concussion, she was able to uncover her eyes before long.
Though Benny Perrin does not condone unsportsmanlike hitting after the whistle, he misses the time when receivers were afraid to come across the middle of a defense and is frustrated by all the new rules that take away that fear.
What is illegal now was strategy then.
“Once you made it clear that you were that kind of player, and Jim Bob (Harris) and some of us were, don’t think that didn’t go through those guys’ minds,” said Perrin, who played for Bear Bryant from 1978-81. “I’ve seen Jim Bob draw that thing back and hit guys in the throat and flip them on their head. And that’s legal.
“That wasn’t even a penalty when I played. Now it’s 15 yards. I mean, put skirts on receivers.”
At least for now, the number of helmet-to-helmet hits appears to be decreasing, the head of NCAA officiating recently told USA Today after new regulations regarding hits were instituted two years ago. Dave Perry told the national newspaper only two players had been suspended under the new rules after seeing close to six last fall.
For Perrin, those kinds of hits helped mold a career for an undersized defensive back.
As a rookie with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1982, he earned the respect of his teammates on the second or third play of his first preseason game when a receiver tried to run a quick slant in his territory.
“I turned and made a beeline for him, dented his facemask, knocked his helmet up off his head, his chin strap is off there laid up,” he said. “My guys were so fired up. I stood over him, and I couldn’t believe it.”
Oh, how things have changed.
Equipment is better, but players are bigger, stronger and faster making the potential for life-changing hits more of a reality.
Tide safety Robert Lester said there hasn’t been any more emphasis placed on safe tackling in practice recently. The message is consistent.
“Coach Saban is going to teach us the near leg, near shoulder and keep teaching us the proper way to tackle someone,” Lester said. “And you never want to lead in with your head.”
Saban, a quarterback and a defensive back as a player, started coaching defensive backs as an assistant and still works with the secondary today. He acknowledged the advancements in medical treatment, awareness and prevention of head injuries as a positive step for football.
Both Saban and Perrin cited Joe Paterno, who recently restated his philosophy on safe tackling.
“I’ve been saying for 15 years we ought to get rid of the facemask,” the 83-year old Penn State coach told reporters. “Then you go back to shoulder blocking, shoulder tackling, and you wouldn’t have all those heroes out there.”
Alabama running back Trent Richardson delivers his share of big hits but also occasionally leaks out of the backfield and into the middle of defenses as a safety valve in passing situations. He doesn’t play with fear of injury.
“Obviously I get hit in the helmet a lot because of the style I run,” he said. “But it doesn’t really matter to me. I’ve probably got hit in the head and got shook a little bit and got up and act like it didn’t hurt at all. But other than that, I don’t really think about it.”
Richardson has never suffered a concussion, unlike Perrin, who can remember walking to the wrong huddle after taking a knee to the ear playing the Falcons. Atlanta quarterback Steve Bartkowski had to walk him back to the St. Louis side and he played two more downs before being taken off the field.
His break didn’t last long.
“Once I was able to tell the doctor what stadium I was in, I’m cleared to go back in the game,” he said.
Oh, how things have changed.
Moore never left the sideline after Saturday’s hit that Tennessee coach Derek Dooley called vicious but not illegal.
For Perrin, looking back on his football glory days comes with some of the sports lingering effects still felt today. He was forced to retire after three NFL seasons when a routine chest x-ray revealed a broken bone in his neck.
He lives with pain to this day, but that comes with the sport and he doesn’t have regrets for the way he played the game.
“I played out there for years, at any second that could have been the end,” he said. “If you choose that profession, that’s part of it. It’s like a race car driver, if you’re not worried about flipping that thing and getting killed that afternoon, you might want to find something else to do.”
To Perrin, things didn’t necessarily need to change.
But they have.
That’s just football in the modern world where headhunters are punished instead of glamorized.
Michael Casagrande covers University of Alabama sports for The Star.