Column: Nelson Toburen curse strikes Packers again
What is it about the Green Bay Packers and neck injuries?
Running back Johnathan Franklin, who was released Friday by the Packers, is the latest in a long line of players to suffer a career-ending mishap.
Maybe we should call it the Nelson Toburen curse, named after a largely forgotten player during the Vince Lombardi era whose career was cut short when he broke his neck during a 1962 game at City Stadium (now Lambeau Field) against the Baltimore Colts.
Toburen was making his first career start Nov. 18 that year for the then-unbeaten Packers, but was severely injured while tackling quarterback Johnny Unitas.
On the fateful play, Toburen, who was 23 at the time and in his second year with the Packers, forced a fumble that was recovered by Ray Nitschke to help preserve the 17-13 victory over the Colts.
But he would never play football again, and there's no telling what kind of impact Toburen might have had with the Packers.
"Nelson Toburen was a great guy and athlete who had All-Pro potential as a linebacker on the left side," Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback Herb Adderley said in the 2011 book "The Lombardi Impact: Twenty People Who Were Brushed by Greatness," written by Royce Boyles and Dave Robinson.
In the book, Toburen credits the care of Packers team physician Dr. James Nellen with preserving his spinal cord, which allowed him to lead a normal life. Toburen earned a law degree, worked in private practice for 20 years and was appointed as a district judge in Kansas.
Some believe he would have become a household name along with many of his Glory Years Packers teammates.
He is on an expanding list of Packers players whose careers abruptly ended because of neck injuries. They include cornerback Tim Lewis, receiver Sterling Sharpe, safety Gary Berry, receiver Terrence Murphy, guard Tony Palmer, defensive lineman Jeremy Thompson and safety Nick Collins.
The careers of tight end Jermichael Finley and defensive tackle Johnny Jolly also are in jeopardy, pending more medical tests on their necks.
There is no rhyme nor reason for the large number of career casualties. In some cases, the neck injuries were more fluky than the result of violent collisions.
Collins, for example, was attempting to make a tackle in Week 2 of the 2011 season when his neck bent ever so slightly the wrong way against Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart's backside. There is no way to prevent such a freakish incident, but it left Collins in search of a new profession because doctors declined to clear him to play football again.
Collins was part of the Packers' 2010 Super Bowl championship team and had earned three consecutive Pro Bowl berths. He might have become one of the greatest safeties in team history. The Packers defense still is feeling the effects of his absence three years later.
The Packers posted a 15-1 record even without Collins in the starting lineup that season, but we will never know whether he might have catapulted the team to greater playoff success.
Without Collins' impactful presence the past three years, the Packers have failed to advance beyond the divisional round of the playoffs. Sometimes what separates playoff qualifiers from Super Bowl champions is one or two key players. There's no telling how things might have been different as the Packers have struggled to find an adequate replacement for Collins.
Murphy, a promising second-round draft choice, got hurt in his third NFL game during his rookie season in 2005. He was injured after picking up a fumble by Najeh Davenport on a kickoff return. It was another fluky play and begs the question: If Davenport hadn't turned the ball over, what kind of career might Murphy have enjoyed?
Friday is the kind of day Packers general manager Ted Thompson loathes. In announcing the release of Franklin, Thompson's words in a news release sounded somber.
"It's never easy releasing a player, but it's especially difficult when a young man's opportunity is taken away from him because of an injury," Thompson said.
And yet, injuries are a big part of football, and players have learned to deal with that reality. Packers running back Eddie Lacy admitted as much Thursday after news of Franklin's career-ending injury hit the locker room.
"It definitely makes you think, especially at our position because we're getting hit from a bunch of different angles by a bunch of big guys, so you just have to continue to pray and keep your faith," Lacy said. "But you never know when your last play is going to be."
Franklin has attempted to remain upbeat through the ordeal. But the pain of losing your dream job runs deep, and dealing with the initial shock can be difficult.
Toburen experienced that first-hand.
"I could hardly accept I couldn't play anymore," Toburen said in "The Lombardi Impact" book. "Doctor Nellen was not going to budge on that. … When things got tight, I went to see some more orthopedic surgeons with the idea I might play. It would not have been wise."
Franklin can only hope his post-football career will follow the successful path of Toburen. Thompson is confident it will.
"Johnathan is a great person, a wonderful teammate, and a man that lives by his faith," Thompson said in a statement. "The Packers are fortunate to have had the chance to work with him and we know that he will excel in whatever the future holds for him. He will always be a member of the Packers family."
Those are encouraging words, but still, it's sad that Franklin must join a group of former Packers who will never truly know what their football careers might have been.
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