This story originally aired on November 5, 2016.
There has been a lot of attention paid in recent years to the risks of playing professional football. While head injuries are nothing new to football, the National Football League implemented nine years ago, and has since constantly tweaked a concussion protocol, and has adjusted other rules to assist in player safety.
But professional football players seem to be getting bigger, stronger, and faster every year, and despite the safety measures put in place, major injuries still seem to happen every week. One of the most serious injuries in the NFL happened in November of 2015 to Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Ricardo Lockette. In fact, it almost killed him, and ultimately led to his retirement.
Lockette recently spoke to GeekWire reporter Taylor Soper at the annual GeekWire Summit, as part of the Geeks Give Back campaign. He talked about the reward of finally being able to make it on to CenturyLink Field as a professional, the injury, and the surprising attitude he had after leaving the game.
Soper: “So you made the team, but you didn’t actually play your first game until about four months later in December. It’s a home game, CenturyLink Field, it’s electric, and on the first play, Seahawks have the ball, Tavaris Jackson drops back, 44 yards, you’re right there. You make the catch. You’re right on the Seahawks sideline. Everyone’s going crazy. That’s got to be an amazing feeling.”
Lockette: “That was actually one of the best days of my career, because my dad’s favorite team, coincidentally, is the 49ers. So my first play was Christmas Eve and we played the 49ers. I told my dad, I said, ‘Hey, watch the game today. I got something to show you.’ He doesn’t know that I’m active. He just thinks that I’m going to sitting on the sideline in a sweatsuit, and hopes that I don’t run across the field and do something crazy.
So the very first play of the game, Christmas Eve, my dad’s favorite team, his son that he coached his entire life is walking out on the field. He’s like, ‘I was watching it and I thought that was you but I wasn’t quite sure. Next thing I knew, they hiked the ball and they threw you the ball and I was just hoping that you caught it, just hoping that you caught it, and when you caught it, I couldn’t stop the tears from my eyes, because that was everything I wanted you to experience. I wanted you to know that you were great, and that anything was possible.’ So that Christmas Eve was one of the best Christmas Eves, one of the best gifts I probably could have given my dad.”
Soper: “Let’s jump to last November, almost a year ago now. You’re in Dallas, you’re sprinting down as fast as you can on punt coverage, and bam. You get hit, you fall. You’re not moving. What was going on in your mind?”
Lockette: “We’re running down, and Coach Carroll, he’s like, ‘Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go. Rocket, we need you. Let’s go. Let’s roll, let’s roll.’ He’s really high-energy like this. We get ready to roll, and the ball is snapped, and I give a move, and I’m running down the field, and then I check to see the flight of the ball, because I’m going to fight for the return, no brakes. I’m running right for him, and I see him, I see him, and I’m pushing this guy off.
Then, all of a sudden I hear a boom. It’s like a loud crack, right there. It’s kind of the sound if you were to hit a fork on the side of a glass. I’m just laying there, and the only thing I can move is my eyes. I’m looking around. I can’t hear anything. That was a moment where a lot of things changed in my life.
I look at myself as a warrior. I look at myself as someone that can’t be stopped. I look at someone that has an unbreakable personality, and that moment, I was extremely vulnerable. I wasn’t a warrior. There was nothing that I could do for myself.
So I’m laying there, and I’m just asking God to just give me the opportunity to get up and walk again. Give me the opportunity to hug my mom again. Give me the opportunity to at least tell my daughter that I love her, and I want her to be great in life. At that point, I’m laying on the ground, and touchdowns and Xs and Os and Super Bowls don’t matter anymore. That’s when you realize what’s really important in life. What’s really important in life is affecting others in a positive way. How do they feel about you? If you leave today, what did you do to help mankind, your family, your brothers, your sisters? That’s what’s important to me now.
I had great doctors and a great training staff. They helped me out. I’m laying there and pretty much my skull is disconnected from my spinal cord. If my teammates were to come over and say, ‘hey, get up,’ and pull my hand or move my arm, I would have died. If the play would have extended a couple more seconds, and the guy would have ran the ball and fell on top of me or whatever, I would have died. If the training staff had came over and just tried to pick me up or put me on the cart some kind of way, I probably would have died.
But I’m thankful to be here. I’m thankful to God that I’m here. Because their training, their studying, their passion for what they want to do, what they wanted to do and be, saved my life. I dare not take that for granted. There’s a lot of people that are in the hospital right now that are fighting for their lives, and a lot of people that’s not here today. I dare not waste another day not giving my all to be the best I can be, giving my all to help others complete their dreams and their goals in life.”
Soper: “What were those couple weeks, maybe months after … I know you had some conversations. Marshawn visited you in your hospital room. I’m sure some of these thoughts that you have now, you had then. And your daughter came. What were those conversations like? Was your perspective already changing at that point?
Lockette: “Yeah. It had definitely changed. Maybe an hour after the hit happened, it took my daughter and my family a little while to get to the hospital. My mom and the doctor says, ‘hey, your daughter is outside.’ November 1st is actually her birthday, so she came to that game as a birthday gift from me. She’s outside, she’s 10 years old. She’s at the door. They’re like, ‘Do you want her to come in?’
At this point, I have to think about — I’m the hero, I’m the warrior, and my daughter’s like, she’s my little girl, she’s my angel. Do I want her to see me like this? Daddy’s all bandaged up, stuff’s all on his neck, wires and stuff everywhere. Do I want her to see me like this? Do I want to see her at my weakest point?
My answer was yes, because I wanted her to feel okay. I didn’t want her to go to sleep not knowing what happened to daddy, or not knowing this, not knowing that. I wanted to deal with that void in her brain. Once she got in, all my tears went away. All my pain went away, because, like I say, my purpose was bigger than the effort or the work it took to get the job done. The job that I had to get done was to show my daughter that no matter what happens, you can always win. There’s always another day. Hey, daddy’s going to be okay. You know, don’t cry. It’s OK, it’s football, you know? This is not … we’re going to have a birthday party tomorrow.
At this point, I don’t know if my neck’s broken, I don’t know if I’ll ever walk again. I have no idea. All I know is that I have two to three minutes with my daughter that thinks I’m the greatest thing that ever happened to life, and I have to make her happy. That’s what I did, and I’m glad that I chose to let her come in the room.”
Soper: “You decided to retire earlier this year. As we talk about how your perspective has changed, it’s tough to hang up the cleats, but you dedicated your life to helping others in need. Why?”
Lockette: “Because others helped me when I was at the lowest point, or the worst point in my life. Coming out of the hospital, I would say, maybe like an hour after that, I saw a group of homeless people on the corner. It had to be at least 100 of them. I couldn’t believe that this many homeless people were on the street. In Georgia you don’t see that many. In Seattle, you see it here or there, but Dallas, it was more people on the street than there probably is here. I was wondering, what could I do, what could I do, what could I do? An hour after surgery, obviously I can’t do much, I can barely move.
I tell the driver to turn around and go by the burger place. We bought a hundred burgers. Ever since that day, trying to help homeless and just giving back has been a snowball effect for me, and I’m excited about everything that I’m going to be doing, and doing in the future.”
Soper: “Speaking of helping others, you are helping out the Seattle Science Foundation with some pretty cool work they’re doing with spinal injuries. Can you talk a little bit about that?”
Lockette: “These guys are amazing. The Seattle Science Foundation and Dr. Shane Tubbs and Dr. Rod Oskouian. They’re great. We’re trying to raise awareness for spinal cord injury. We want to raise awareness that there’s actually 17,000 spinal cord injuries that happen every year. Our plan is to do, actually, the first 3D mapping of the spinal cord, so that we have a better understanding of how it works, the different intricacies of the brain and how it works with the spinal cord, to one day make the wheelchair a thing of the past. There’s a lot of people that need our help. We’re going to raise money for those that can’t afford insurance — those that need surgeries and just don’t have the money to do it.
Special thanks to John Cook at GeekWire for sharing this discussion with us.
This story originally aired on Nov. 5, 2016