Before he attacked Mason Rudolph on Thursday night, Myles Garrett was the NFL’s warrior poet. Profiles contrasted his on-field powers of destruction with his gentle off-field personality. Here at The Ringer, we wrote about his favorite Kipling poem and the depth of his interest in paleontology. But within a few seconds, Garrett’s career arc changed. He is no longer the budding superstar with the deep thoughts and the pure heart. He is the guy who did something so violent it seems unconscionable, even in a sport that demands violence and breaks the bodies and brains of those who play it.
In the final seconds of Thursday’s game between the Browns and the Steelers, Garrett got into a fight with Rudolph and the offensive linemen assigned to protect the Pittsburgh quarterback. Garrett pulled Rudolph down after he’d already thrown the ball, an act that should have drawn a roughing-the-passer penalty. Rudolph reacted by trying to remove Garrett’s helmet, escalating the situation. Then Garrett tore off Rudolph’s helmet and swung it at Rudolph’s unprotected head. All hell broke loose. Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey helped throw Garrett to the ground, punched him, and kicked at Garrett’s head.
There is something especially jarring about watching Garrett’s swing. In slow motion, it looks so vengeful: the insistence on ripping off Rudolph’s helmet, with Garrett lifting the QB from the ground as he removes it; the focus as Garrett powerfully cocks back his arm; the direct impact made as he follows through. After the game, some suggested that Rudolph was lucky to be alive. Garrett is one of the NFL’s strongest players—only three active defensive ends bench-pressed more than he did in their respective combine workouts—and the alloy shell of a helmet is hard enough that it can cause physical damage even when a player is wearing it. Luckily, Garrett caught Rudolph with the underside of the helmet, not the sturdy crown.
Garrett seemed remarkably clear-headed when talking about the incident after the game. Normally, players who get into brawls as heated as this one spew venom toward the press when interviewed immediately afterward. Instead, Garrett admitted that he lost his temper and called his actions a “mistake.” (He issued a full apology on Friday.) Was that really the same person who had just slammed a guy in the skull with a hunk of metal?
Before Thursday, Garrett’s phenomenal play and thoughtful demeanor had established him as the NFL’s prototypical star: aggressive and explosive on the field, friendly and composed off of it. Even when attacked by a fan on his day off, he couldn’t be roused to violence, just snarky tweets. Now he has been suspended indefinitely—“at a minimum the remainder of the regular season and postseason,” according to an NFL statement—and some are asking whether he should face criminal prosecution. Suffice it to say, profiles of Garrett will never again lead with his poetry.
Thursday brought a horrifying moment that I’d never before seen in an NFL game—and it wasn’t Garrett’s helmet swing. Browns safety Damarious Randall put a helmet-to-helmet hit on Steelers receiver Diontae Johnson that sent Johnson stumbling to the sideline with blood pouring out of his ear. I guess I was aware that blood could come out of a person’s earhole theoretically, but I can’t remember ever seeing it televised.
And Rudolph this season has been involved in one of the most disturbing on-field injuries I’ve ever seen—and it didn’t happen on Garrett’s helmet swing either. In Week 5, Rudolph was sandwiched by a pair of Ravens defenders, knocking him unconscious. His teammates repeatedly tapped his body in attempts to generate a response from their quarterback, who lay motionless for several minutes. JuJu Smith-Schuster was shown crying and falling to the ground in agony. Doctors unscrewed Rudolph’s face mask so they could access his throat and prevent him from choking to death on his tongue. Eventually, he stood up, dazed and disoriented.
On Thursday, Rudolph barely seemed bothered by the helmet crashing into his skull. It took less time for him to begin registering complaints with the referees than it did for Garrett to remove the helmet in the first place. And Garrett isn’t the first NFL player to attack an opponent with a helmet. The occurrence is common enough that the league includes language in its rule book specifying that a team will get a 15-yard penalty if a player uses “a helmet that is no longer being worn by anyone to strike an opponent.” Kyle Long did it in training camp this year; Damon Harrison did it in training camp last year; Antonio Smith did it to Richie Incognito during a 2013 game. In 1994, Michael Irvin attacked a player with a helmet. (On Thursday, Irvin used his platform as an NFL Network analyst to call for Garrett to be suspended for the rest of this season; his own punishment was $12,000.) In 1986, Raiders linebacker Matt Millen saw a scrap developing between Howie Long and a man he didn’t recognize in the tunnel, so he used his helmet to smack the stranger in the head. Later informed that the stranger was Pat Sullivan, the Patriots general manager and the son of the team owner, Millen said, “Oh, then it was a good hit.” Millen went on to become the Lions GM.
Despite the history of helmet attacks and the scary nature of Johnson’s and Rudolph’s injuries, there is no question which moment this season feels the worst—it’s the Garrett incident. Randall’s hit was outlawed by the rules of the game and led to his ejection. Rudolph’s concussion seemed like a devastating result that can happen when bodies slam into each other.
Garrett’s behavior doesn’t feel like a part of football at all. It was an egregious attack, obviously intentional and clearly uncalled for, and it can’t be defended by anyone who wishes to be taken seriously. His suspension for the rest of the season is warranted, and arguments that he should face assault charges have precedent; NHL player Marty McSorley was found guilty of assault in Canadian court in 2000 after smashing opponent Donald Brashear in the head with his stick.
In McSorley’s trial, the judge said, “If this is the trial of Canadian hockey, the judge and jury is the Canadian public.” The implication was that McSorley had overstepped what was acceptable within the already-violent bounds of the sport. The same is true with Garrett. He kept going when football stopped and could’ve caused a serious injury with a piece of equipment designed to prevent them.
There is a notable difference between McSorley and Garrett. McSorley was an enforcer, a player whose skill set was less valuable than his ability to intimidate opponents, keeping superstar teammates like Wayne Gretzky safe from danger. Garrett, meanwhile, is the star. Last season he had 13.5 sacks, sixth in the league. Entering Week 11 this year, he had 10, which ranked fourth. Since being drafted no. 1 in 2017, Garrett is fifth in sacks despite missing five games with injuries as a rookie. No player has recorded more sacks in fewer games over that span.
Now his production is an afterthought. His achievements will long be marred by Thursday’s act. In the past, when the violence of football was considered its greatest strength, players like Irvin and Millen got wrist slaps for using helmets as weapons. But the NFL wants desperately to distance itself from the violence inherent in its sport, and it is failing miserably. The league has never been sure how to address the lifelong damage caused to players via head injuries, and has been rightly criticized for letting players involved in accounts of domestic violence and assault back onto the field.
In this era, Garrett seemed like a godsend for the NFL, a mild-mannered pass-rushing phenomenon. Now he will become a pariah, the man who couldn’t realize that the violence stopped with the whistle.