Football is just a game

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Cal football’s loss to USC on Saturday night didn’t feel like previous defeats in the Justin Wilcox era.

When Wilcox, senior linebacker Evan Weaver and redshirt junior linebacker Kuony Deng each took questions during their postgame press conferences, the mood in the room was notably distinct from other media sessions they’ve done this season, and for good reason.

They were all thinking about linebacker Evan Tattersall, their teammate and friend.

While there was still plenty of time left to be played at the time, football was largely an afterthought following a second-quarter kickoff return that left players, coaches and fans in stunned silence.

Sprinting down the field on his kickoff coverage assignment, Tattersall ran full-force into Juliano Falaniko, a USC linebacker tasked with picking up Tattersall on this particular return sequence.

Just moments after Falaniko’s block sent Tattersall flying backward, Falaniko immediately waved to his athletic training staff to help Tattersall, who lay motionless on the field aside from a few hand gestures. And in the middle of an intense, Pac-12 matchup with the score tied at 10 apiece, a pin drop could be heard in a stadium filled with nearly 50,000 people.

It’s a scene that everybody fears when it comes to the game of football but is simply a part of a game that features a level of physicality that most competitive sports can’t compare to. Although efforts have been made to protect player safety in a variety of facets, the Falaniko-Tattersall collision is a play that has happened before on that exact type of play: kickoff returns.

It took more than 10 minutes for the medical staff to properly load Tattersall onto the emergency cart, a time period that saw his parents come down from the stands and receive consultation from Wilcox and a variety of responders.

When play resumed after Tattersall departed from the field, you can’t help but wonder if Cal would have played differently had the nature of the injury not been so heart-wrenching. The Trojans outscored the Bears 31-7 after the Tattersall injury, but you can hardly blame Cal players for having their thoughts with a teammate that they go to war with day in and day out.

Losing any week is tough, but when you witness your teammate’s health in jeopardy to that degree, losing is particularly tough.

Wilcox’s intensity was a few notches below his typical postgame temperament. Rather than humorous after a win or disgruntled after a loss, Weaver’s mood was somber. And Deng, a player known for a positive outlook and consistent personality, put into words what the entire team was thinking both during the game and after it concluded.

“You hope and you pray he’s OK,” Deng said. “Obviously, that’s a guy in our room, a guy we spend a lot of time with. So we were really worried for him, as a brother. Football aside, you just want to make sure he’s OK.”

Football is just a game — but it’s also more than that. With the way the sport is structured and the way the game is played, football creates a brotherhood that many sports simply can’t compare to. And when a brother’s health and well-being was in flux the way Tattersall’s was during those long 10 minutes on the California Memorial Stadium turf, football is nothing more than an afterthought.

When the news came in over the press box intercom that Tattersall had movement in his extremities, and when Wilcox announced that Tattersall was planning on being discharged soon, a wave of relief flushed over the room.

We all pray that he’ll be at full strength soon enough, competing with his “brothers” who went to visit him immediately after their postgame duties. While the Bears suffered an emotional defeat Saturday night, perhaps just seeing Tattersall in a good state will bring positives vibes heading into arguably the biggest week of the season.

Josh Yuen covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @joshcal2020.