Harsh reality of brutal sport

Michael Silver
Yahoo! Sports

Kyle Turley was relaxing in first class a few years ago when the muscular offensive lineman began experiencing an in-flight nightmare nearly as chilling as "Snakes On A Plane." A prickly, cocky, suit-clad businessman was cackling on the phone and intermittently barking out orders to the sycophantic subordinates who had come up from the coach cabin to tend to his needs.

"The guy was so loud, so obnoxious, and thought he was so all-important," Turley recalled Tuesday. "Finally, against my wife's objections, I turned around and said, 'Are you ever gonna shut the (expletive) up?' The guy just stared at me with his mouth open, and he never said another word the rest of the flight. And everyone else in first class was like, 'Thank you.' "

Given that Turley stands 6-foot-5, weighs nearly 300 pounds and once was forced to attend anger management classes by the NFL after a celebrated helmet-extraction on national television, the suit made a wise decision. But Turley, now 32 and playing what likely is his final NFL season for the Kansas City Chiefs, wasn't looking to throw down; he merely used his ability to intimidate as a weapon.

Like it or not, this is what pro football players do – on and off the field, for they live in a bubble in which only the physically and mentally strong survive. We may marvel at their graceful movements and technical skill while watching on television, a medium on which the sport seems strangely sanitized, or from our stadium seats, where the action is remote and jumbled. We may gush over certain players' statistical feats and even claim to "own" these athletes as fantasy football magnates.

But when you strip it all away, these are violent men, many of whom fought their way out of harsh and crime-infested circumstances, who are paid to beat the snot out of one another yet expected to keep it together once the whistle blows.

The tragic death of Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor on Tuesday morning was yet another chilling reminder that violence outside the bubble is far more difficult to contain.

I called Turley and several other current and former NFL players to talk about Taylor's murder and the way it resonated in the football world. The circumstances of how and why Taylor died – he was shot by an apparent intruder to his Florida home – aren't yet clear, and we all agreed that until authorities complete their investigations, it's useless to speculate.

But without addressing Taylor's death specifically, these players were willing to discuss the prospective perils of playing a sport based on aggression and employing a similar approach to conflict resolution in matters away from the field. Throw in the fact that many NFL players achieve fame and fortune while remaining exposed to less fortunate people from their past, and you have a potentially combustible combination.

"There are a lot of people that don't have, and a few people that do, and sometimes the people that don't have are jealous and will do whatever it takes to get a piece," says Arizona Cardinals halfback Edgerrin James, Taylor's friend and fellow University of Miami alum. "That's just the way the world is. You're never gonna see the haves run up on the have-nots; it's always going to be the other way around. (Expletive) happens."

None of us yet knows what happened to Taylor, and like most people in my profession, I knew very little about the man, largely because he wanted it that way. He was an exceptional athlete with a penchant for ferocious hits and a concentration level that sometimes wavered, though he seemed to be making huge strides in that regard over the past season and a half.

I also was aware of his off-field struggles, most notably an incident in 2005 when he was accused of brandishing a gun at a man as they argued over all-terrain vehicles that allegedly had been stolen. A year later he pleaded no contest to a pair of misdemeanors and received 18 months' probation.

As with Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams, who was shot and killed in a Denver drive-by shooting in January following an altercation in a nearby nightclub, Taylor's 2005 incident seemed to underscore the dangers of applying a football-style mentality to civilian life.

"If you look at the background and makeup of many NFL players and the people we associate with, sometimes we find ourselves in situations that become confrontational," says retired halfback Marshall Faulk, who grew up in a notoriously rough housing project in New Orleans. "And we're people who get in confrontations – that's where we're from, that's what we do.

"Football is violent. If you've got a problem with the guy in front of you, you hit him hard and try to knock his block off. In the real world it's just not like that, and it takes awhile for some people to learn that distinction."

Turley, for one, has learned the hard way that the anger which makes him such a force on the football field can work against him when not properly checked. In 2001, while playing for the Saints, Turley went into a rage when New York Jets safety Damien Robinson grabbed New Orleans quarterback Aaron Brooks' facemask and twisted it. After the whistle, Turley accosted Robinson, yanked off the player's helmet and hurled it across the field, earning a $25,000 fine and a trip to several anger-management sessions mandated by the league.

"The week before the Jets game, in St. Louis, I went nuts in the locker room at halftime," Turley recalls. "There were a couple of helmets thrown, I wrecked a couple of things, and I said, 'Let's stop playing like (expletive) and kill these (expletives).' It got everybody fired up, and we went out and did just that, and everybody said, 'Wow, Kyle Turley's an inspirational player.'

"The next week I did what I did in the Jets game, and obviously I took it too far. But now, all of a sudden, I'm everything that's wrong with football, and I've got to go to anger-management."

Turley, like many veteran players, has mellowed as he has matured – but that doesn't change the fundamental nature of his day-to-day vocational existence.

"Every day, for 2½ hours of practice, it's violence," Turley says. "You're hitting the same guy in practice, and if he goes harder than you think he should, the competition rises, and you just want to kill each other. Then, on game day, it escalates – you're going to war."

There's a reason that numerous NFL players throw up before every game, and it's not because they're nervous about missing an assignment on national television. It's because they're about to engage in the closest thing to hand-to-hand combat that most non-soldiers ever will experience. With few exceptions, they're out there to impose their will on the men across from them, and those who can't do it consistently and effectively soon find themselves out of work.

Meanwhile, those who are triumphant become that much more convinced of their own invincibility.

"You're in the arena, and you're bigger than life," Turley says. "You're on top of the world, and how are you going to walk away from a guy challenging your toughness out on the streets. Do I want to (expletive) someone up in the real world? All the time. You're in the grocery store line and the person in front of you is taking forever, or people are making too much noise in a movie theater, and you want to drill somebody. Hey, the Christmas season is upon us, and how many people don't contemplate murdering someone in a mall?"

Obviously, that last statement was for effect. Even though Turley may not have grown up in a neighborhood as rough as some players, he understands that a rise in literal violence correlates with a drop in income.

"Teams bring these kids in," Turley says, "and many … whose families still live in bad areas, and so they go back home and are targeted. I know plenty of guys who think they can drive their brand new Mercedes with 22-inch rims into a ghetto. Well, no, you can't. You try to keep it real, and you might end up real shot."

Taylor lived in a nice house in a good neighborhood, and whatever provoked his death, it served as a reminder to his NFL peers that the ability to intimidate one's opponent counts for very little when guns and other brutal elements of American society are brought into the equation.

As shrewd men like Turley, Faulk and James have learned, and Taylor may have been on the way to figuring out, outside the bubble the true survivors are the ones who can avoid and walk away from confrontations. Even then, that's not always enough to ensure their safety.

"You always go back to where you came from, even after you make it, because that's what you know," Faulk says. "When I went back, I'd get in some situations, and afterward I'd say, 'Whoo, boy, that could've ended badly.' In Sean's case, who knows if it could've been prevented? There are burglaries and people getting shot every day; this just happened to be somebody famous."

As with Williams nearly 11 months earlier, this is another senseless death that strikes many of us as terribly sad.

I have a feeling that most of those inside the NFL bubble, as they consider Taylor's plight, will be overcome by another emotion: anger.

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