Commentary

Nightmare scenarios: Whom (and what) NFL players fear

As Halloween approached, ESPN.com wondered how many NFL players would divulge their darkest fears about an unforgiving game. Read their confessions.

Originally Published: October 30, 2008
By Kevin Seifert | ESPN.com

Adrian PetersonBruce Kluckhohn/US PresswireCowboys kicker Nick Folk wants no part of tackling Adrian Peterson on a return. "I don't have a great game plan for stopping him," he says of the Vikings' star.
Adrian Peterson digested the news slowly. Someone had just walked over and informed him that another NFL player had made the rarest of admissions: He is scared to tackle him.

This is no small confession in the ultramacho world of professional football, where pain is both an honor and virtue and fear is rendered dormant by inactivity. But Dallas' Nick Folk -- albeit a kicker, but still an actual NFL player who wears a uniform and everything -- was willing to break with the usual stereotype during a recent conversation in the Cowboys' locker room.

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"The only time I've been truly scared of anything is getting ready to kick off and seeing Adrian Peterson standing back there," Folk said. "Most return men are just trying to run by you, but Peterson's the type of guy who'd love to run over me and then run by me. When Peterson's standing back there, I don't have a great game plan for stopping him."

As Halloween approached, ESPN.com wondered how many NFL players would divulge their darkest fears about an unforgiving game. Peterson was surprised that someone -- anyone -- mentioned him by name.

"I don't think I'm a scary guy," Peterson said. "But I like to be feared on a football field."

What (or whom) do other players fear? For Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen, it's kickoff coverage.

"You never fear a man," he said, "but you can get blasted on kickoffs. You can get up looking through your ear hole. I have a fear of that, sure."

Seattle Seahawks cornerback Kelly Jennings, meanwhile, has no interest in absorbing a stiff-arm from the San Francisco 49ers's hard-charging running back, Frank Gore.

"The worst-case scenario is him coming through the hole, a gaping hole, and it's you and him one-on-one, and you don't get a chance to get him from the side," Jennings said. "It's tough. Look, I'm a football player. I'm on defense. I have to make a tackle. … [But] even the linebackers have a hard time getting him down. You gotta hold on, maybe grab a leg or something."

ESPN.com probed the psyches of a cross section of players from each division. Here is what we found:

Baptism by Runyan

Jon RunyanPaul Spinelli/Getty ImagesTennessee cornerback Cortland Finnegan would prefer to avoid Eagles offensive tackle Jon Runyan (above). "He's a nasty player," Finnegan says of the 6-7, 330-pound Runyan.
Tennessee Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan is regarded as a fearless player, aggressive in coverage and against the run. Ask him about a nightmare scenario, and it doesn't take him long to come up with one involving a notorious Philadelphia Eagles tandem.

"A screen with Jon Runyan with [Brian] Westbrook behind him," he said. "One-on-one with Runyan with Westbrook behind him for a touchdown. Oh my goodness. I know I am going to have to go through him if it's for a touchdown. I'm just thinking about what body part I am going to use that could be injured. Shoulder? Neck? Back? Those three things I would be highly worried about with Runyan.

"I think if you go low on Runyan, he may drop the knee somewhere. So I think you have to stay high and just let him baptize you. That's probably what I would do. You know when you go backwards and your head hits first and you wake up as if somebody baptized you or blessed you? I think that would be Runyan right there, all day, every day."

Philadelphia's Runyan, the only active player in the league who suited up for the Houston Oilers, is in his 13th season. Finnegan has played against the Eagles only once, his rookie season in 2006, and encountered Runyan just once in that game.

"He plays the game at a high level, he's a nasty player," Finnegan said of the 6-7, 330-pound Runyan. "He got his hands on me when we played Philly and he threw me about 25 yards away from the play, and the play wasn't even around me. So I just know if he got his hands on me and he was the lead blocker on a screen that it could be detrimental to my health."

--Paul Kuharsky, AFC South blogger

Fear of failure

Miami Dolphins left guard Justin Smiley isn't afraid of any one man. He's afraid of them all.

[+] EnlargeJustin Smiley
Scott Boehm/Getty Images"Fear in this game is bigger than people know," Miami offensive lineman Justin Smiley says. "We're humans. I don't care what anybody says."
"The only real fear I have is getting beat one-on-one and giving up a sack," said Smiley, one of the more coveted free agents in February. "That scares me more than anything.

"To me, that's worse than getting injured.

"I don't even think about the quarterback getting hurt. It's me getting embarrassed. It's sobering. You wonder, 'Am I good enough?' You may have 75 starts under your belt, but it kind of brings you to your knees. That fear is what really keeps me driven in a game."

Smiley's comments strike at the psyche of athletes in a manly collision sport. An outsider sees a gladiator intent on destroying his foe. In reality, a player may be motivated more by not letting the opponent make him look bad.

"Fear in this game is bigger than people know," Smiley said. "We're humans. I don't care what anybody says. That defensive tackle across from me may believe he's going to get me more times than I'm going to get him, but there ain't no doubt in my mind that he worries am I going to get him.

"I know it's going to be a bloodbath, and we're going to battle it out. But I don't necessarily have to kick your butt and beat you up and down the field. I'm going to try to because usually when you try to, in return, you don't get your butt kicked.

"I don't want to fail. If we can come out and have it be 0-0, that would be fine."

--Tim Graham, AFC East blogger

A Hines Ward crackback

Whether the hits are legal or perceived as dirty -- as many opponents claim -- being blocked by Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Hines Ward is certainly scary.

Ward will be remembered as one of the toughest, most physical receivers in NFL history. He blocks like a fullback and his "crackback" hits on unsuspecting players have caused concussions and broken jaws, as Cincinnati Bengals rookie linebacker Keith Rivers recently can attest.

[+] EnlargeHines Ward
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesPittsburgh receiver Hines Ward's "crackback" hits on unsuspecting players have caused concussions and broken jaws.
Cleveland Browns cornerback Daven Holly was another one of Ward's victims. Holly was knocked out of a game in 2007 when Ward charged full speed and nailed Holly on the side of the helmet.

"It was a big hit and it knocked me out," Holly recalled. "I'd say for a few seconds I lost consciousness. He gave me a mild concussion. That's the type of player he is."

The word is out on Ward, yet every year his hit list continues to grow. He is beloved in Pittsburgh for his hard-nosed style but is not well-liked by his opponents. And although many of his detractors won't admit it, much of that animosity derives from respect and, to some degree, fear of being blindsided by Ward.

"Obviously no one wants to get hit when they're not looking," Browns starting cornerback Brandon McDonald said. "You can say it's scary. … but I think it's more of guys wanting to be aware and make sure it doesn't happen."

Holly said the Steelers receiver also needs to be wary of his actions as a result.

"After a while people are going to start going after him and they're going to start hitting him [dirty],'' Holly said. "That's what he doesn't want. He's a lot more vulnerable, because he's a receiver."

--James Walker, AFC North blogger

A shot to the knees

Throw the word "fear" at New Orleans Saints defensive end Bobby McCray and he pauses for only about two seconds.

[+] EnlargeBobby McCray
Derick Hingle/Icon SMISaints defensive lineman Bobby McCray, right, says he fears no player. But he does fear a shot to his knees.
"You probably don't want to ask me who I fear," McCray said. "I don't fear anyone. If I did, I wouldn't be standing here. But you might get a better answer if you ask me what I fear.''

Well then, what does McCray fear?

"There's one thing and really only one thing,'' McCray said. "That's somebody coming at my knees. It's my worst nightmare.''

McCray said he felt it in the season opener against the Buccaneers when Tampa Bay Buccaneers running block Earnest Graham made a block at his knees.

"He didn't get me all the way because I was able to move at the last second," McCray said. "But he got me enough that I've been feeling something not quite right with my knee all season."

McCray's played through the pain, but carries the thought of Graham or someone else coming at his knees constantly.

"You truly see your whole career flash before your eyes," McCray said. "I mean, think about it as a player. You're in a unique situation. You have a chance to make a lot of money and help yourself and your family for life. But you're starting off with a very limited window as far as the time you can do it in. When you've got somebody coming at your knees, that can close the window forever right there. That's the one thing that's enough to scare any of us."

--Pat Yasinskas, NFC South blogger

Getting 'Marshalled'

Ray Lewis and Brandon MarshallUS Presswire/AP PhotoAt 6-5 and 230 pounds, Denver receiver Brandon Marshall, left, has been called "a defensive lineman playing wide receiver." At 33, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis still deals out plenty of punishment.
It is one of the more helpless feelings in the NFL.

There you are. An isolated, beaten cornerback sprawled out, face first, on the field. You have a mouth full of dirt and grass. Your hands are grasping nothing but air. You have divots from Brandon Marshall's speeding cleats firing back into your eyes.

Terrifying thought.

It's happened dozens of time since 2006 and it's bound to happen hundreds more times to earnest but unfortunate defensive backs. It should be referred to as "being Marshalled."

Indeed, having Denver Broncos receiver Brandon Marshall break a would-be tackle and rumble down the field for more yardage or even a touchdown is a common phenomenon in the NFL. It happens several times a Sunday.

"Brandon Marshall is a defensive lineman playing wide receiver," Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Brandon Flowers said. "He wants to inflict punishment on you. He wants you to try to tackle him so he can shove you off of him and get more yards."

At 6-5 and 230 pounds, the sculpted Marshall has many things going for him that contribute to his uncanny talent of being able to break tackles and get yardage after the catch.

Not only is Marshall big, but he's very fast and he plays mean. He plays with a purpose. Catching the ball is just half the deal for Marshall. Once he gets the ball in his mitts, Marshall is full steam ahead. He is all moving parts, with three or four defenders hanging on him.

Be the first to meet a football-toting Marshall and be sure to be bruised and battered. And don't expect to bring him down. Not by yourself, at least.

--Bill Williamson, AFC West blogger

A collision with Ray Lewis

It's happened more than 1,000 times over the past 13 years, and not once has an opponent liked it.

No one looks forward to getting tackled by Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis.

"That is something I try to avoid,'' Cleveland Browns receiver Donte' Stallworth said, laughing.

No one doubts that, at age 33, Lewis can still bring it.

Just ask Pittsburgh Steelers rookie tailback Rashard Mendenhall, who had his shoulder broken and season ended by a flush hit from Lewis in Week 4. Also ask Cleveland Browns tight end Kellen Winslow Jr., who had the ball jarred loose going over the middle in Week 3, forcing an interception.

The 13-year veteran is still considered one of the league's hardest hitters.

"He's very intimidating and he is the most fierce player in the NFL," said former teammate Peter Boulware, who played with Lewis for eight years. "He's so intense when he gets on that football field, he is laser focused on making every play. And unlike most linebackers that try to make tackles and knock balls down, when Ray tries to make a tackle he tries to hurt you. He tries to mentally and physically intimidate you, and he does that with most of his opponents."

--James Walker, AFC North blogger

ESPN.com NFC East blogger Matt Mosley and NFC West blogger Mike Sando contributed to this story. Kevin Seifert is the NFC North blogger.