His helmet lowered, Rutgers tackle Eric LeGrand suffered the type of catastrophic spinal injury that longtime athletic trainer Charles Thompson is surprised doesn't occur more frequently.
"They think they're invincible in that helmet," said Thompson, head trainer at Princeton University and chair of the National Athletic Trainers' Association's College and University Athletic Trainers' Committee. "They think it's a video game. I guess they feel the need to put their head down and I don't think it's always because they are trying to hurt the other guy."
It was the opposite in LeGrand's case as he was the defender who initiated the contact in a game against Army on Saturday. The immediate diagnosis was that LeGrand was paralyzed from the neck down. Rutgers coach Greg Schiano had no updates on his fallen player's condition when he spoke to reporters on Wednesday.
The NCAA, like the NFL, has continued to adjust its rules over the years after similar tragedies combined with the recent revelations of the debilitating, long-lasting effects of concussions. Thompson admits there's no simple answer and it's impossible to eliminate all serious injuries from football, but he offered up one solution: more yellow flags.
"One big problem is that (illegal hits) aren't called enough," Thompson said. "The rules for spearing are there. It's written down and it's very, very clear."
Incidents of spinal injuries and deaths have decreased dramatically over the decades, a combination, experts said, of equipment improvements and better trained medical staffs.
Between 1965 and 1975, there were 204 fatalities in all levels of football related to head and cervical spine injuries, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Injury Research. During the most recent 10-year period studied (1995-2004), there were 45 deaths. The number of players who became quadriplegics as a result of football has gone from 34 in 1976 to single digits in recent years, according to the same researchers.
The National Center for Catastrophic Injury Research also sides with Thompson when it comes to how the game should be called.
"Game officials (referees) should call all illegal helmet contact in games," the researchers wrote in their annual survey released to the NCAA and American Football Coaches Association in February. "If they call all illegal helmet contact, the number of concussions and catastrophic injuries may be reduced. . . . At the present time, officials are not calling all illegal helmet contact."
And the rule in the NCAA is also no longer open to interpretation. The NCAA, which began to clamp down on hits where a player leads with his face or head in 1976, eliminated the word "intent" from rule that governs spearing and other head-down contact in 2005. But when he talks to his colleagues at other schools, Thompson said penalties are still rare for such contact, which he said is flagged at much higher rate in the NFL.
Not that it's stopped those type of hits on that level. A day after LeGrand's injury, NFL fans saw some gruesome collisions that led to Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison, New England Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather and Atlanta Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson being fined a total of $175,000. The league has also threatened to suspend players for such hits going forward.
This is the second season where suspensions can be assessed for illegal collisions on the collegiate level. The NCAA requires conferences to review plays -- even if no foul was called -- when players target the head or use their helmet as weapon. According to the NCAA, 73 plays were reviewed, four players were suspended and an unspecified number of letters of reprimand were sent to coaches and players.
"First and foremost, our thoughts go out to Mr. LeGrand, his family and his teammates during this difficult time," NCAA spokesman Erik Christianson said in an e-mail. "Catastrophic injuries in football are extremely limited, but they are devastating and have a great impact on those involved."
Five Division I players were ejected last season for these sort of violations and Dave Cutaia, the supervisor of officials for the Pac-10, said his conference's officials are continually reminded from preseason training on to be on the watch for such collisions.
"Still, it's a difficult call," Cutaia said. "You get to look at these things in slow motion, one frame at a time. At regular speed and with how quickly things happen, it's difficult. That being said, certainly the frequency of the penalty is called has increased. I know in the Pac-10 it has over the last three years."
Cutaia said he doesn't know what else the NCAA could do to create rules that would make the game any safer.
"I like the direction this has gone in regards to the emphasis on player safety," Cutaia said. "Nobody wants anybody hurt in the game of football, in the National Football League, the Pac-10, the Big Ten or any other level. I don't think our rule could be any clearer."
Former Penn State cornerback Adam Taliaferro, who was paralyzed when he lowered his head to make a tackle against Ohio State in 2000, doubts any rule will curtail such hits unless, he quipped, football goes back to the leather helmet.
"That could be the only way to get it out of the game," said Taliaferro, who regained the use of his legs months after the injury and now practices corporate law in New Jersey. "You think you have that level of protection (with the current helmet) and from Day 1 you are taught never to lead with your head or lower your head. Then, all of a sudden, instinct takes over."
Taliaferro returned to Penn State to lead the Nittany Lions onto the field for the 2001 opener and served as a student assistant under coach Joe Paterno. Andre Taliaferro, Adam's father and the head of Adam Taliaferro Foundation, has reached out to Schiano, the Rutgers' coach, to offer up the support for LeGrand.
Despite months of rehab and another reminder of how fragile the human body actually is via LeGrand's injury, Taliaferro said even he wouldn't be able to break the helmet-first habit.
"Even now, there's a mindset that it won't happen to me," said Taliaferro, whose organization helps athletes with spinal cord injuries "It's the mentality of an athlete. They think nothing is ever going to happen. I'd play the same way as I did before."