Inside receivers just suck it up and play

A few years ago in Toronto, B.C. Lions slotback Geroy Simon caught a ball down around the five-yard line and thought he had a clear path into the end zone for a touchdown.
B.C. Lions' Geroy Simon, No. 81, is upended by Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Kelly Malveaux after making a reception during second-half CFL action in Vancouver on July 18, 2008. ((Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press))

A few years ago in Toronto, B.C. Lions slotback Geroy Simon caught a ball down around the five-yard line and thought he had a clear path into the end zone for a touchdown.

Until he was hit by a runaway truck named Kenny Wheaton, who left the future Hall of Famer literally seeing stars and unsure of where exactly he was.

Back to the huddle Simon went, where he told then-quarterback Dave Dickenson that he'd better not throw him the ball for two or three plays.

"I knew there was no way I was going to be able to catch it, because I couldn't see straight and I was seeing double and all of that stuff," he says now.

Any normal person would have put a knee down and waited for the training staff to help direct them to the bench for a shot of whatever the modern equivalent of smelling salts might be.

Simon is not normal, and neither, football observers say, are all the men who make their living as inside receivers, cutting across the middle where defensive backs and linebackers lie in wait, hoping to cause a major traffic accident.

So why didn't he leave the field?

"I was still able to play. I just wasn't able to effectively function for … 30 or 40 seconds," says the 10-year veteran, who has caught more than 700 passes for around 12,000 yards and counting.

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Footsteps? What footsteps?

You hear it in the broadcast booth and the stands whenever a receiver drops a ball right in his hands as a defender closes in — "Aw, he heard the footsteps."

Don't tell professional inside receivers that.

"You don't hear footsteps," says Hamilton's Chris Davis. "If you do drop the ball, it's maybe from a lack of concentration, or some other condition, but it's never footsteps."

B.C.'s Geroy Simon says by the time you've advanced to the pro level as a pass catcher, worrying about taking a big hit at that moment the ball is in the air has simply been trained out of you.

"As an inside receiver, a good one, you have to block all of that out so you can just do your job," he says.

"What I tell young guys is you're going to get hit [by the defender] regardless of whether you catch the ball or not, so you might as well catch the ball."

Davis says learning not to hear footsteps is something that can be taught to young players, by having "a complete awareness of everything that's going on around you." 

Ego? Absolutely. And receivers will admit to that. But it's far more — in this game, you not only can't lose the war, you can't lose any of the battles, either.

"You see, if he knows that every time he hits me like that he takes me out of the game, he's won," Simon says. "Because he's going to take shots at me any chance he gets to take me out, because he knows I'm not mentally strong enough to take the pounding."

That's why you see receivers who've been hammered out there bouncing right back up like Monty Python's famous Black Knight ("just a flesh wound!").

Being fearless

"When a guy hits you [as Wheaton did], and you just get up and walk away like nothing happened, he's like, 'What else do I have to do to get that guy out of the game?'"

Chris Davis knows both feelings — getting your head handed to you and the pride of getting up again. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats' inside receiver is already building a reputation of being fearless.

Or nuts, take your pick.

"Just going across that middle, man, you already know there is a chance that you could be hit pretty hard," said Davis, on the phone from practice at Ivor Wynne Stadium last week.

"Your back is most of the time away from the defence [when catching a ball] and you're looking into the quarterback, so you kind of lose sight of your defenders sometimes."

And that can mean one thing. Pain.

"I took a pretty good shot against Toronto [in Game 1 — and by pretty good shot he means extremely sharp pain and shortness of breath that took him out for, oh, two plays] and I would agree it's psychological.

"I can't get off the field. I can't show weakness. It's just like the animals out in the jungle, you know, when they see their prey displaying any weakness, they attack you more."

A 30-year study of catastrophic football injuries in high school, college and pro ball by the University of North Carolina shows almost 35 per cent are suffered by defensive backs, who, for example, lead with their heads down far too often and always sacrifice their bodies to make hits.

Instinct and ability

Receivers, on the other hand, are under two per cent.

That's not to say the big injuries don't happen, as was shown by Jason Tucker's career-ending incident at Hamilton last year, which sent the Edmonton receiver into a coaching career.

But the way hits are regularly dished out by the DBs, why aren't there more catastrophically injured pass catchers?

Simon says it's instinct and ability. You learn quickly how to catch the ball and instantly put your body into a position to take the hit and lessen the chance of that career- and life-altering, collision.

"As a receiver, you know how to absorb blows — don't just fall and just kind of flail all over the place," Simon says. "You learn how to fall, you learn how to roll, you learn how to take a hit."

And you learn how to play the mental game.

"It's like the saying 'Never let them see you sweat,'" he says. "Never let them intimidate you, because if they do that, the psychological battle … they win."