Geno Atkins was at the top of his profession twenty-four hours ago. The Bengals star defensive tackle was named first team all-pro last season at only age 24, and is widely viewed as the best interior defensive lineman in the game. Just this week, Greg Bedard with Peter King’s MMQB wrote a feature on Atkins, breaking down film with him. You know you have made it when you are being featured nationally talking film, something normally reserved for quarterbacks.
Gone in an instant, life in the NFL. Last offseason, Atkins signed a 5 year, $55 million dollar extension. It’s the kind of payday that players hope for, knowing how quickly it can disappear through random bad luck and one play.
Last night, Atkins went to the ground, twisting while trying to make a play on a run by Lamar Miller. There was no contact on a cut block into his knee–something we have seen take out players frequently. Miller landed on him, but the injury appeared to happen earlier. It wasn’t the worst looking play, but in an instant, the all pro tackle was gone, and likely for the rest of the year. Geno Atkins is having a MRI today to confirm a torn ACL, according to Adam Schefter.
Sadly, it is a story too common in the NFL–the blazing shooting star. Atkins limped off with the help of teammates, and the next play began. Next man up. Thirty defensive tackles have been named as a first team all-pro by age 27 since 1970. Atkins is the fifth to suffer a serious knee injury the season after being lauded as the best in the game at the defensive tackle position. (Another, Kris Jenkins, had the following season cut short by a shoulder injury, then tore his ACL at the start of the 2005 season).
Wally Chambers of the Chicago Bears was selected as the NFC Defensive Player of the Year in 1976, and was first team all pro. Many people may not know Chambers. To put that in perspective, he was selected NFC DPOY ahead of players like Alan Page, Jack Youngblood, and Harvey Martin. The following season, he tore up his knee, and was banished to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a year later for a first round pick. He helped Tampa Bay reach the NFC Championship Game improbably a year later, then retired at age 28 due to ongoing knee issues.
Cleveland Elam, member of San Francisco’s Gold Rush, picked up when Chambers went out in 1977. Elam was the first team all pro selection after (even though sacks were yet to be officially recognized) recording 17.5 of them in a 14 game season from the defensive tackle position. Elam, who recently passed away too young, suffered his own knee injury the following year, and was retired by age 27.
The next star defensive tackle to be felled by a knee injury was the massive Louie Kelcher of the Chargers. A knee injury in the opening game of the 1979 season took him out. Kelcher, now in the San Diego Hall of Fame, came back the following season to make the pro bowl as San Diego reached the championship game–the only tackle here to bounce back with a pro bowl year.
The fourth star tackle to be felled by a serious knee injury was Keith Millard. Millard was the Defensive Player of the Year, in a performance in line with J.J. Watt, in 1989. As an interior lineman he had 18 sacks that year, and was selected over the likes of Ronnie Lott, Reggie White, Mike Singletary, Lawrence Taylor, and teammate Chris Doleman.
Sports Illustrated had a fascinating feature on Millard and his life after that injury as he was trying to come back.
“My knee’s shot. My knee’s shot,” he moaned. “There goes my whole career. It’s over. I’m through.”
“You’ll be all right,” said his wife, Sallie, with tears in her eyes. “It’s not that bad.”
“My knee popped all the way out!” Keith said. “It’s over. We’ve got to think about what we’re going to do with our lives.”
Millard was close to right. He needed a second surgery the following year and did not play, never taking a snap for the Vikings again. Millard, now a Titans assistant coach, would play parts of two more seasons with three different teams before retiring.
Geno Atkins now faces history with the hope of modern miracles. We have seen recently amazing comebacks from injuries that would have effectively ended careers, most notably Adrian Peterson a year ago. Four other defensive tackles, guys who but for a bad play, a twist in a pile, a body falling the wrong way, may have been on their way to Canton, are largely forgotten by the modern fan. In the NFL, it is star today, and in an instant, it could be gone tomorrow.