By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
The final minutes of a football game in Norman, Okla., were ticking off the clock, but it just had not ticked fast enough.
The score was 16-7, Oklahoma over West Virginia University, but somehow that didn’t matter at all.
Not at this moment, not with 85,000 football fans sitting in silence, not with Doug Rigg lying motionless on the field.
The West Virginia players had encircled their teammate, a senior linebacker from Oradell, N.J. A dozen medical workers, trainers and doctors, gathered around him, all in white, putting a neck brace ever so carefully on him, his helmet still on.
It was obviously a neck injury and his breathing was labored and he hadn’t yet moved. He had gone in low to make a tackle. Low and violently.
Instantly you could see something terrible had happened.
They worked on him for 10 minutes, maybe more, and believe it, not one person in the stadium was thinking about how bad West Virginia’s offense had been or how good its defense had been.
Something like this puts it all in its place.
It’s a football game.
Games are supposed to be fun, but this was no fun. Not now.
Not as they lifted Rigg, now on a backboard, onto a golf cart. Then something wonderful happened as the cart started to move.
Doug Rigg raised his right hand. Not high. He was strapped to the cart.
But he raised the hand and gave a little wave.
“That was good,” said WVU coach Dana Holgorsen. “I never saw a guy get knocked out cold like that, but when he came to he was moving his limbs.”
The crowd cheered as he waved.
Somewhere Doug Rigg’s mother and father breathed a little bit easier. Such a movement said that he wasn’t paralyzed, that maybe this wasn’t as bad as you originally feared.
Play began again, but it wasn’t the same, especially two plays into the series when the sound of a siren heading for a local hospital could be heard.
While he was en route to the hospital the game came to an end, West Virginia losing, 16-7.
You wanted to remember the defensive performance, holding Oklahoma to one touchdown. You wanted to remember Dreamius Smith’s 75-yard touchdown run.
You wanted to wonder where Clint Trickett was when the offense wouldn’t work, but that’s to talk about a day from now and next week.
What you really would take from this one was just how violent the game of football really is.
You’ve seen over the past few years rule changes, all of them aimed at making the game safer for the players.
Mostly it was to protect the head, where concussions had brought on memory loss, Parkinson’s disease, even death. Over the past four or five years the movement grew, headed by Dr. Julian Bailes, who was head of neurosurgery at WVU’s Ruby Memorial Hospital.
Recently there was a settlement to a lawsuit in the NFL paying out big money to players who had been affected … a settlement that protected the NFL from being found liable for the head injuries, either civilly responsible or criminally responsible.
Old-timers scoffed at some of the rules changes. You couldn’t do this; you couldn’t do that.
This is football, they would say.
It’s a tough game and you know the risks when you play it. On the professional level the compensation is unimaginable, part of for taking the risks you take
But then, on a steaming hot Oklahoma evening, it is driven home to you why it has to be safety first, seeing a playing lying on the field, having collided with such violence that he was knocked unconscious, with such violence that you feared he had broken his neck and may come out of this football game with partial or full paralysis.
Yeah, WVU lost the game, but I don’t think Doug Rigg is thinking about it right now.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.