A somber silence was still gripping and clinging to the Jets’ practice field while Zach Wilson played catch with three little sons of coach Robert Saleh, a sweet, innocent reminder cameo from a sport that is forever a kid’s game for everyone from Tom Brady, who turned 44 on this day, to Wilson, who turned 22 on this day.
But about a half an hour earlier, the sport offered a frightening reminder that your next play can be your last play on Any Given Sunday — or Any Given Tuesday at training camp.
A reserve offensive tackle named Cameron Clark, a fourth-round 2020 draft choice out of Charlotte who didn’t see the field as a rookie, crumpled to the grass with a neck injury and wasn’t moving near the end of the Jets’ first padded practice.
Alarm bells began ringing loudly above the hush, because neck injuries do not care if you are 6-foot-4, 308 pounds and 23 years old.
I watched in horror from the press box on Nov. 29, 1992, when a 6-4, 270-pound defensive end named Dennis Byrd, just 26 years old and married, crashed headfirst into teammate Scott Mersereau’s chest attempting to sack Chiefs quarterback Dave Krieg at the Meadowlands. Byrd broke the fifth cervical vertebrae in his neck and wrote an inspirational story of courage when he willed himself to walk again, to midfield for the ceremonial coin toss at the 1993 opener. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. He would never play the game he loved again.
Doctors and trainers rushed to Cameron Clark’s side. Teammates stood in hushed silence from a short distance, white-jerseyed offensive players on one side, green-jerseyed defensive players on one side, and watched with grave concern. Saleh walked over to his fallen player and let the medical staff do its thing.
There was one practice period left, but Saleh canceled it. His “All gas, no brake” mantra became “All brake, no gas.”
Clark was placed on a spine board and lifted into a nearby waiting ambulance. The ambulance sat still on a road adjacent to the field for 15 minutes before it departed slowly for Morristown Medical Center, its red lights flashing.
Fingers crossed everywhere for Cameron Clark.
Prayers everywhere for Cameron Clark.
At 5:37 p.m., Jets’ prayers — everyone’s prayers — were answered. The club released this statement: “Cameron Clark has been diagnosed with a spinal cord contusion and he is expected to make a full recovery. He will remain in Morristown Medical Center.”
At his press conference, Saleh was asked if Clark had movement in his extremities.
“Speaking with the doctor, he did have some,” he said, “but as far as the details and all that stuff, we’re gonna wait for further evaluation.”
Wilson’s chemistry with fellow rookie Elijah Moore, his adapting to pressure from the defensive line shrank the pocket to a phone booth and forced him to underthrow a deep shot or two, even his birthday, seemed insignificant now.
“What it takes to get to this position and then just how that can change his life, I don’t know how serious anything is, but you feel for the dude and you take every day and approach every play like it could be your last,” Wilson said. “I’m not sure if it is, he could be back tomorrow, I have no idea, but it’s just a scary situation when someone is getting carted off the field.”
“You just pray that he’s going to be all right. You hope God can just watch over him and everything he’s doing. It kind of just shocks everyone a little bit.”
One year prior to Byrd’s tragic event, a 6-6, 288-pound Lions guard named Mike Utley, soon to be 26, broke three vertebrae in his neck in a freak accident while pass blocking and endured a spinal cord injury that eventually paralyzed him from the chest down. He flashed a thumbs up as he was carted off the Silverdome field.
“Football goes away at that moment,” Saleh said, “and it’s about the person, his family, his mom and everyone in his life. That’s what takes precedence at that moment, so football just kinda goes away, and you get empathy in the sense that we all have families. … Everything’s gonna be good.”
He didn’t know that right then and there, of course. He had caught what had happened only out of the corner of his eye.
“I’m an optimist,” Saleh said. “God willing, everything’s gonna be just fine. I thought our doctors were all available, and they tended to him pretty quickly and did a really nice job … and now we wait.”
During a 1978 preseason game, a 26-year-old Patriots receiver named Darryl Stingley collided at the Oakland Coliseum with violent Raiders safety Jack Tatum, compressing his spinal cord and breaking his fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae. Stingley spent the rest of his life as a quadriplegic with limited movement in his right arm.
Clark, the 129th pick, was the second offensive lineman drafted in 2020 by GM Joe Douglas, after first-round pick Mekhi Becton.
“A tremendous young man, and he’s got a lot of great work ethic,” Saleh said. “A guy who’s well-liked in the room. The game is very important to him. He’s been moving in the right direction. Hopefully everything comes out good on these checkups and we can get him back here soon.”
Saleh is married and a father of seven. His players at every stop in his NFL career have loved him because he loves them. He managed a smile and a chuckle near the end of his press conference when I asked him about the three tots wearing green 21 jerseys catching passes from his rookie quarterback.
“Oh man … my little dudes. That’s my little army. Each and every one of ’em’s a blessing, so it’s always good to see ’em,” he said.
His little dudes, his little army, were thankfully too young to sweat the gravity of what had befallen Cameron Clark.