TAMPA — The game goes on. Always, forever. Without sentimentality or remorse.
The NFL has been described in many ways over the years, but soft-hearted is not among them. Players get hurt, players get replaced. Sometimes for a week, sometimes for the rest of their lives.
A.Q. Shipley will not be among the Buccaneer players who put their helmets on at FedExField for a playoff game against Washington on Saturday night. His career ended without warning or formality seven weeks ago in the final minutes of a game against the Rams.
There’s a medical term for what happened to him, but Shipley said it’s best described as a bruised spinal cord. There was nothing dramatic about his final moments. Then again, there was nothing fancy about his entire career.
Unless you’re a diehard fan, you probably don’t even know his name. But, believe me, you’ve cheered for his type before.
A late draft pick who spent three years trying to make an NFL roster before finally getting in a game, waived five times, finally nailed down a starting job at age 30, blew out his knee at 32, and signed in Tampa Bay as an insurance policy late last summer. He started 72 games in his career and appeared in almost 40 more.
In a way, he was the perfect NFL player: devoted, diligent and easily replaced.
Maybe that’s why his injury bothered me so much. In my mind, his perseverance epitomized all that is good about sports and it just seemed cruel to have his career end so randomly. So quickly. So quietly.
“It was all pretty straightforward. The doctor says, ‘Hey, listen, here’s your MRI, here’s your spinal cord. You see this little spot right here? That’s it for you. You can’t play contact sports anymore,’” Shipley recently recalled. “You take major college football into the equation, and that means I’ve been working my tail off from 18 to 34. That’s damn near half my life.
“And all of the sudden it comes to an end. It’s not the easiest thing to swallow.”
Go back and watch the play when Shipley’s career ended, and you will be astounded at how routine it appeared. In a way, it might be the best way to explain the violence that occurs each and every time the ball is put in play.
The ESPN broadcast never showed a replay of what happened. Analyst Brian Griese mentions that Shipley is down in the backfield, but the cameras instead focused on quarterback Tom Brady as the broadcast goes to commercial.
“The hit that happened? It was something that I’ve probably done, gosh who knows, 100,000 or more times in my career,” Shipley said.
It was the final play before the two-minute warning near the end of the game. Shipley was playing center and had no defensive linemen in front of him. His first priority was to watch for a blitzing linebacker and, absent that, to shift left or right to help one of the guards.
Shipley went right to block Michael Brockers but, just before he made contact, was nudged from behind by Rams rusher Aaron Donald. Shipley thinks the Donald contact must have left his head and neck in a vulnerable position when he engaged with Brockers.
By the time ESPN came back from commercial, you saw Shipley sitting casually on the bench. The numbness in his body had already dissipated.
“I’m thinking, ‘Okay, cool, it was just another stinger. I’ve had about 20 of them in my career. I’ll be good,’” Shipley said.
A day later, he knew better. The MRI was sent to a specialist in Los Angeles who confirmed the original diagnosis. Had he been 22 and at the start of his career, Shipley said he might have opted for surgery and a comeback a year later. But at 34, married and with two toddlers, the choice to retire was simple. Painful, but simple.
He jokingly says his wife, Shari, followed him around the house for a day or two to make sure he didn’t do anything crazy, but Shipley quickly shifted into post-player mode. Much of his career owed a debt to Bucs coach Bruce Arians, and that didn’t change in retirement.
Shipley played in Arians-coached offenses in Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Arizona before coming to Tampa Bay. He might not have been the most talented lineman in a huddle, but Arians could always count on him to be prepared and not make mental mistakes. Days after taking off his uniform for the final time, Shipley was working for the Bucs as an assistant coach, learning the ins and outs of computers and game plans.
“A.Q. was another coach on the field, he was just that type of player,” Arians said. “Thinking he had a stinger and then seeing what it (really) was, my biggest thing was to get him coaching right away and get him active. Because I know he’s going to be a great coach. Take some of the sting away from the career being over by starting a new career.”
Listed at 307 pounds on the roster, Shipley has already dropped 30 pounds since Nov. 23 through a combination of diet and exercise. Moving on was inevitable, he said, and there was no sense in dwelling on the reasons.
“Everybody says they’d like to go out on their own terms,” Shipley said. “My wife told me I would have kept coming back year after year until somebody told me I was too old and not good enough anymore, and she’s right. So it ended this way instead.
“It could have been a lot worse and that’s my silver lining. I got 12 really good years and a ton of memories. That’s the way I choose to look at it.”
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.