Keeping Score

Rashad Johnson Gives Football a Middle Finger

The Arizona Cardinals player found part of his finger in a glove during Sunday's game. He may be back on the field sooner than you think

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David Dermer / Diamond Images / Getty Images

Rashad Johnson of the Arizona Cardinals

He lost the tip of his left middle finger during his team’s 31-7 defeat at the hands of New Orleans on Sunday. But the injury suffered by Arizona Cardinals safety Rashad Johnson is listed as “day-to-day” on the report, which, when you think about it, is remarkable understatement.

The trauma happened during second quarter punt play. “I was going down to cover,” Johnson explained to reporters on Monday. “I came in to try to make a tackle on [Darren] Sproles, and when the play was over with I got up and could feel my hand was kind of numb. I took a look at it, and there was blood coming out of the glove. So I go to the sideline and tell the trainer that I think I may have broken my nail or something.”

It was worse than that. “He takes me to the sideline, and we go to the back, they take the opportunity to cut the glove off,” says Johnson. “And as he’s doing it I’m asking the doctor if I’m going to get a chance to play or go back, and he hits me with a look like, ‘Probably not.’ When he pulls the glove off, [my finger is] pretty much severed at the top, nail and everything is completely gone. It was all inside of the glove still.”

Feeling faint yet?

Johnson manfully adds that “It was pretty devastating for myself, because it was a very close ballgame, It was 7-7 at that point. It was a big game that I wanted to be a part of and wanted to do everything I could to help my teammates win. I was thinking more about them and being more upset about that than I was about my finger, but this kind of stuff happens and everybody stepped in, and we just have to move forward from here.”

No, “this kind of stuff” does not happen. Severed fingers are not the norm. We know the NFL code says players must put team and game above self, at least in public pronouncements. But I kind of wish Johnson’s reaction was more along the lines of “and I saw the tip my finger in the glove and started running in circles screaming!”

Contrary to some earlier reports, Johnson did not re-enter the game with four fingers. Which is a very good thing: there’s playing through pain, and then there’s, well, being sensible. Johnson underwent surgery at a New Orleans hospital right away. Arizona Republic writer Kent Somers first reported that doctors shaved the bone down to about the first knuckle. Since the bone protruded from the skin, doctors are concerned about infection. Then doctors closed the finger with stitches.  Johnson is now with the team in Bradenton, Florida — the Cardinals are staying out east before facing the Buccaneers in Tampa next Sunday.

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“I don’t really know if there is a word that can describe it,” Johnson said of the pain. “It’s pretty much the worst pain that I’ve had in football since I’ve been playing. I’ve been lucky enough to not have any major injuries. To have someone to have to chip away at your bone and dig into it to get it to the point to where they could cover it back up was pretty painful the night after.”

Johnson is hoping to return for Sunday’s game against the Bucs. Such a comeback wouldn’t be unprecedented. Former San Francisco 49ers safety Ronnie Lott, for example, chose to amputate part of left pinky fever before the 1986 season. He had severely jammed it in 1985, and after the digit failed to heal, the docs cut it off. Lott went on to win two more Super Bowls.

The good news is that players can recover from these types of injuries quickly. “Fingers heal remarkably well,” says Dr. Michael Hausman, chief of hand and elbow surgery at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. “No one really understands why. It’s an interesting phenomenon. We wish we understood more, so that we could transfer their healing capacity to other parts of the body.” Shaving off the bone, Houseman says, simplifies the injury. Doctors then just cover up the rest of Johnson’s finger with his skin, and he shouldn’t lose much function.

Johnson is convinced that he won’t. “I don’t think it changes the job too much at all,” says Johnson. “As a football player, when it has to do with the football, you catch the ball between your thumbs and your index finger. Your middle finger, I don’t know pretty much what it’s used for unless it’s just extra grip in making a tackle. It probably wasn’t getting used for anything good anyway.”

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